NEW YORK – While the three-day Thanksgiving celebration that Pilgrims enjoyed with the Wampanoag Native Americans at Plymouth, Mass., in November 1621 was likely not the first Thanksgiving – scholars have uncovered evidence of earlier fall harvest celebrations to give thanks in St. Augustine, Fla., in the 1500s – Thanksgiving has become an iconic American holiday.
Thanksgiving conjures up images of families getting together over a big meal with a juicy, golden-brown roasted turkey holding pride of place in the middle of the table laden with side dishes and desserts. Today, there are as many traditions as stories and even myths about Thanksgiving itself. While we don’t know the exact menu for the first Thanksgiving, the main course was likely venison, not turkey. Pumpkin pie and potatoes also had reportedly not been introduced to New England at the time but today are menu anchors.
Interestingly, Thanksgiving was sporadically celebrated in those early years and not so much in the Southern states. It also didn’t become a national holiday until nearly 200 years later. During the American Revolution, the Continental Congress set aside a few days for giving gratitude and in 1789, President George Washington gave the first federal government-issued Thanksgiving proclamation. New York was the first of several states to make it a state holiday though not all celebrated it the same day.
According to the History Channel, writer and magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale, best known for writing the nursery rhyme Mary Had a Little Lamb, began pushing hard in 1827 to have Thanksgiving designated a national holiday. “For 36 years, she published numerous editorials and sent scores of letters to governors, senators, presidents and other politicians, earning her the nickname the ‘Mother of Thanksgiving,’” its website says. Success came at last during the height of the Civil War in 1863 when President Lincoln designated it as a national holiday.
The commemoration of Thanksgiving came at a time in America’s history when the country needed unity and the holiday was a great way to do that. Today, while the religious aspects of the earliest celebrations have largely been replaced by food-centric aspects, the tradition of families coming together for Thanksgiving continues. In artwork, artists have been capturing the essence of Thanksgiving for almost as long as it’s been a holiday.
Among the most traditional and quintessential images of Thanksgiving are illustrations that graced the covers of magazines like The Saturday Evening Post and The New Yorker by renowned illustrators like Norman Rockwell and J.C. Leyendecker. Rockwell’s most iconic Thanksgiving painting is arguably Freedom From Want, alternately known as I’ll Be Home for Christmas, showing an older couple serving up a large turkey to a table full of family. The 1943 oil painting appeared on the cover of the Post in March that year and is part of the artist’s Four Freedoms series. Leynendecker created multiple Thanksgiving-related paintings that appeared on magazine covers.
Searching LiveAuctioneers’ auction results database for “Thanksgiving,” the highest-selling result was Leyendecker’s oil painting, Bringing in the Turkey, which was a Post cover on Dec. 2, 1933. The painting sold in February 2010 at Heritage Auctions for $90,000 + the buyer’s premium.
A discussion of Thanksgiving imagery would not be complete without looking at Currier & Ives prints, especially its well-known lithograph, Home to Thanksgiving, 1867, created after a work painted by George Henry Durrie. Amid a snowy landscape on a farm, the work shows a family arriving for the holiday to a roaring fire and a good meal. Family, self-reliance and agriculture are key themes in the work.
In researching this article, one realizes most of the families pictured in these artworks are white. It’s worth taking a look at some of the artworks created by African American artists that show the holiday is inclusive of all Americans, including artists like Katherine Roundtree, John Holyfield, including his Blessings series; Answerd Stewart and others. Their works are equally sentimental and nostalgic, some embrace a more religiously inspired view and depict the core values at the heart of this holiday.
Thanksgiving is especially fitting subject matter in folk art and memory painters like Linda Anderson and Grandma Moses approached the holiday with reverence, painting scenes that pay homage to rural life and capture a moment from an era gone by. Contemporary artists like Helen Frankenthaler have a more abstracted take on the holiday. In several Color Field-style works titled Thanksgiving Day from 1973, she painted in a lyrical style on stoneware tile.