The truth about Ben Franklin and the turkey: No he did not recommend it for the National seal. According to notes, he proposed “Moses standing on the shore, and extending his hand over the sea thereby causing the same to overwhelm pharaoh who is sitting in an open chariot.” The motto he suggested should read “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.” In a private letter to his daughter, he praised the turkey as “a much more respectable bird and a true original native of America,” while he denigrated selection of the eagle because he thought the design looked more like a turkey. Ben was probably not aware of the Seventeenth Century Dutch painters’ still lives with turkeys. Such paintings were few and far between, and often the turkey’s head and wing feather were decorations on turkey tureens.
Claude Monet painting “Turkeys” (1877) was commissioned by Ernest Hoschede, art collector and critic, and one of Monet’s best patrons. “Turkeys” was one of four paintings that depicted the four seasons at Hoschede’s estate of Rottenburg in Montgeron. They were to hang in the drawing room. The estate house can be seen in the background. In typical Impressionist style, Monet uses little white paint to color the turkeys feathers. Instead he uses colors of the rainbow; purple, indigo, green, yellow, orange and red the colors of sunlight when it shines through a prism. Brisk brush strokes were employed to show movement. The green lawn complements the red wattles of the turkeys. Monet did not often paint animals, but he certainly made these turkeys appealing.
Camille Pissarro was called the grandfather of Impressionism. He was much older than Monet and Degas, and others, and he took all of them under his wing with open friendship, advice, encouragement, and sometimes financial aid. In the 1880’s he reverted to an earlier theme which Degas described as “peasants working to make a living.” “Turkey Girls” (1884) is one of several that depict girls working with sheep or goats or harvesting. Pissarro depicts a flock of black and brown turkeys which the girl is keeping in line with a stick. Apparently this flock of turkeys is more interested in eating than roaming.
Jennie Augusta Brownscombe was born in Honesdale, Pennsylvania. Her mother Elvira Kennedy was a descendant of a Mayflower passenger. Jennie became an active Daughter of the American Revolution and the Mayflower Descendants. After studying painting in America and Paris, she became a painter, teacher, lecturer, and commercial artist for New Woman magazine. “Thanksgiving at Plymouth” (1925) is the result of the Colonial Revival Movement that began in the 1880’s as industrialization, urbanization, and immigration increased. Americans became increasingly conscious of their history. Although most often seen in architecture and decorative arts, Browncombe and other artists became interested in Colonial history as a source for their subjects. This painting is her second version of this subject, the first titled “The First Thanksgiving” (1914). After diligently researching the subject found in available resources, she produced one of the most popular paintings on the subject. Unfortunately her sources were not very accurate, but fit well the American imagination. The picture also depicts a young mother and her children in the forefront. Women artists, previously thought inferior, worked to overcome this idea. Brownscombe sold reproduction rights for her paintings, and they were seen on calendars, greeting card, reproductions.
Henry Ossawa Tanner was born in Pennsylvania. His father, a former slave, was an African Methodist Episcopal bishop. His mother was a runaway slave who came to Pennsylvania via the Underground Railroad. The family was well respected and Tanner was educated. He studied in Paris, and as a result of French racial tolerance, he was able to do well, ultimately achieving an international reputation. He painted mostly religious and genre subjects. Two of his genre paintings showing the hardships of African American life, “The Thankful Poor” (1894) and “The Banjo Lesson” (1893), were not popular at the time, but they are now among his most famous works. In 2020, with the pandemic causing major disruptions in the world, specifically with the long food lines for so many, it seemed appropriate to include this painting. It is a thoughtful and simple reminder of what is important at Thanksgiving.
Doris Emerick Lee was born in Aledo, Illinois. After studying art in Illinois, Kansas, and San Francisco, she painted murals for the United States Treasury, created art works for Life Magazine, she settled in Woodstock, New York where she established an art colony. She remained in Woodstock for the rest of her life. “Thanksgiving’’ (1935) (24’’x40’’) became a subject of articles in newspapers across the nation after it was exhibited at the Chicago Art Institute and won the prestigious Logan Purchase Prize. The United States was in the midst of the Great Depression; the theme and style of the painting had immediate appeal nationwide. “Thanksgiving” is depicted in Lee’s specific genre style. Everyone could enjoy the delightful hustle and bustle of cooking the turkey, rolling out the pie dough, setting the table, and preparing the carrots and cauliflower. The family dog licks up bits of food fallen from the oven, while a little girl, bloomers exposed, drops a treat for the cat. A new arrival is removing her hat, a young boy smiles in anticipation, and twins in a high chair cheer for joy. A critic described this as “fresh, with the charm of innocence.” Lee’s nostalgic image depicts love of family, and despite the quaint style, it represents America at its best.
Despite our world situation in 2020, hopefully these paintings will bring the reader some peace and joy. A Happy Thanksgiving to readers. Stay well and stay calm.
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown six years ago, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL and Chesapeake College’s Institute for Adult Learning. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.