Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Thanksgiving Art

Our American holiday of Thanksgiving is coming very soon. The holiday is interesting because many Americans aren't completely clear about its origins and traditions. We attribute the holiday to 17th century Pilgrims in funny clothes feasting with local natives, but its origin is more complex. Yes, Pilgrims did hold a harvest feast of thanksgiving with local natives but others in North America and elsewhere held similar festivities on various occasions. For many decades an autumn feast of Thanksgiving was very much a local or regional event rather than a national holiday. The national holiday of Thanksgiving that we celebrate now has its roots in the American Civil War. In 1863 Abraham Lincoln declared a national day of Thanksgiving as a way to ask God to care for those who had become "...widows, mourners, orphans, or sufferers..." in that war, and as a way of asking for healing of the wounds of the nation. The holiday was to be celebrated every year on the fourth Thursday of November, and it was except for a brief period when it was moved up a week. (It is also true that other proclamations of a day of thanksgiving were made, notably by George Washington, but it is the one by Lincoln that carried over into a U.S. holiday.)

Norman Rockwell, "Freedom From Want," 1943
For most of us now, Thanksgiving is the day in November when we get together, eat too much, watch football and nap. For many, it can commemorate a time of a completed harvest, of settling in for the darker months and of warmth and comfort, each in our own snuggery. Regardless, the American holiday is mostly secular. Our Thanksgiving art reflects those attitudes too, seems to me.

Probably the best-known and liked American Thanksgiving painting is by Norman Rockwell, but it wasn't painted for that holiday. It's part of a Rockwell's four painting series that was used during World War II to raise money for war bonds. The series by Mr. Rockwell was based on "The Four Freedoms," enumerated in President Franklin Roosevelt's 1941 State of the Union speech. The freedoms enumerated were freedom from want and fear and freedom of speech and religion. The painting "Freedom From Want" did actually make a cover of the Saturday Evening Post during March 1943 rather than at Thanksgiving. But it's certainly appropriate for November.

J.C. Leyendecker, "Saturday Evening Post Cover" 1928
One of Norman Rockwell's own heroes was J.C. Leyendecker, who did covers for the Post himself, even before Mr. Rockwell. In the example here, Mr. Leyendecker gives homage to the Pilgrims and to to football, which even in 1928 was an American Thanksgiving event. Mr. Leyendecker continued doing the annual Thanksgiving cover for the magazine during much of the 1930s.

For me, perhaps the most poignant Thanksgiving painting is another by Norman Rockwell, this time the Thanksgiving cover for the Post in 1945. "Home for Thanksgiving," (left) shows a soldier home from the war, grinning and doing K.P. duty for his mother. He has survived the war and made it home, the wrinkles in his face a testament to what he's been through. He wears a military shirt but civilian shoes, no rank visible anywhere, and the patch on his shoulder suggesting he is an Air Force veteran. In his bravura way Mr. Rockwell places the fixings for a big dinner on the table behind the pair, a foretaste of a true feast of thanks.

The soldier's mother is of course the entire civilian nation, overjoyed at the return of their sons and husbands, yet grieving for the enormous loss; thankful for deliverance.        

This year, Lincoln's hope that the wounds of the nation can be bound up by a national day of thanksgiving is a more fervent wish than in many years. 


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