Turkey by Harry Cimino courtesy SAAM

Our Top Thanksgiving Art

Celebrate Thanksgiving with art! We’ve gathered five works of art relating to the holiday. Some are more well known, while others might be new. Take some time this Turkey Day to see how different artists have interpreted the themes of cooking, eating, and admiring food. We start admiring all that is Thanksgiving with a bronze statue of a turkey by John Singer Sargent, Norman Rockwell’s actual Thanksgiving dinner, those that work hard to prepare our food by Vincent van Gogh, the savory flavor of butter by Vollon, and James Peal’s bounty of the fall harvest.  

 

John Singer Sargent, Turkey, c. 1913
John Singer Sargent, Turkey, c. 1913

Best known as a painter of fashionable society portraits, American artist John Singer Sargent also produced sculpture. Sargent’s turkey seems to have a sense of pride, strutting forward with its feathers puffed and its tail fanned out like a halo. In his portraits, Sargent often endowed his sitters with qualities of confidence and elegance, and his distinctive style seems evident in this turkey, too. It’s hard to imagine eating this bird.

 

Norman Rockwell, Freedom from Want, 1943
Norman Rockwell, Freedom from Want, 1943

Norman Rockwell’s Freedom from Want is among the most iconic paintings in American art. Originally conceived in response to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech, Freedom from Want has lived on in countless reproductions, tributes, and parodies. Rockwell took inspiration from scenes of the Last Supper, such as the version painted by Leonardo da Vinci. Fun fact: the older woman serving the turkey was the Rockwell family’s cook, and she actually made the meal depicted in the painting. This might be the most famous turkey in art history.

Vincent van Gogh, The Potato Peeler, 1885
Vincent van Gogh, The Potato Peeler, 1885

Mashed potatoes are a staple of the Thanksgiving table, and Vincent van Gogh is known for doing a series of peasants preparing and eating potatoes early in his career. This work by van Gogh is painted on the back of his famous Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat. Completed in 1885, The Potato Peeler dates from the artist’s time in the Netherlands before he moved to France. Van Gogh aims to honestly depict his subject, unvarnished and true to life, and he succeeds in conveying her singular focus on the work at hand.

Antoine Vollon, Mound of Butter, 1875/1885
Antoine Vollon, Mound of Butter, 1875/1885

A favorite of many visitors to the National Gallery of Art, Antoine Vollon’s depiction of butter is unforgettable. The artist uses several different shades of yellow to suggest the uneven surface left behind after the knife has scraped some butter away. This gives the painting a three-dimensional quality. Two eggs at the bottom right provide a sense of scale: this pat of butter is massive, big enough for multiple Thanksgiving feasts. Briskly applied to the canvas, the paint looks like it’s as wet as slowly melting butter.

James Peale, Still Life: Balsam Apple and Vegetables, c.
James Peale, Still Life: Balsam Apple and Vegetables, c.

Active during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, James Peale came from a family of artists, which counts his brother Charles Willson Peale and his nephews Raphaelle Peale and Rembrandt Peale as members. In this work, James Peale depicts the bounty of the fall harvest. He includes okra, squash, eggplant, balsam apple, tomatoes, and three types of cabbage. While the other vegetables in the painting wouldn’t look out of place in a Thanksgiving meal today, balsam apple was more commonly used during this period as a medicinal herb. Records show that Thomas Jefferson planted it at Monticello in 1810, not long before this still life was painted.

 

As a time to visit family, reflect on blessings, and cheer on our favorite football teams, Thanksgiving is a highlight of the American calendar. If you have relatives visiting from out of town, consider a visit to the National Gallery of Art or another local museum, where you can see works of art relating to the holiday — or get some new ideas about what to make for your Thanksgiving meal.

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Andrew Lokay

Andrew is an art lover and frequent visitor to DC art museums. He studied international relations and French at Stanford University, where he also took coursework in art history. He’s passionate about helping people see art with new perspectives.
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