Home to Thansgiving in New EnglandHistory

Traditional American Thanksgiving in Art and Song

by Helen Breen (originally posted as two articles in 2016-17)

Among America’s most beloved 19th century renderings of Thanksgiving Day are Currier & Ives lithographs, Grandma Moses’s paintings, and Lydia Marie Child’s famous poem/song “Over the River and Through the Wood.” In the 20th Century, Norman Rockwell depicted an idealized version of American Thanksgiving. In 1973 the artist established a trust to preserve his artistic legacy that became the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge. His studio and its content were added to the property and are visited by thousands every year.

Currier & Ives

Nathaniel Currier
Nathaniel Currier & James Ives

Currier & Ives was a tremendously successful printmaking firm, based in New York, in the latter part of the 19th century that catered to the sentimental taste of Victorians. Between Nathaniel Currier’s (1813-1888) artistic talent and his partner James Merritt Ives’s (1824-1895) business acumen, some 7,500 lithographs were produced in the company’s 72 years of operation. The enterprise employed many artists to churn out depictions of idealized American life that were sold inexpensively to adorn the homes of a growing middle class. Country scenes, and particularly winter landscapes, were especially popular.

Nathaniel Currier and James Merritt Ives described their firm as “Publishers of Cheap and Popular Prints.” According to one source, “Artists produced two to three new images every week for 64 years (1834–1895), producing more than a million prints by hand-colored lithography. Small works sold for five to twenty cents each, and large works sold for $1 to $3 apiece.” Currier and Ives’ famous lithograph “Home for Thanksgiving” (shown above) was copied widely, including by Grandma Moses. (Courtesy of springfieldmuseum)

American Homestead Currier and Ives
“American Homestead Winter” is an example of a popular Currier & Ives lithograph, an “authorized copy” of an original work created by an artist or other skilled craftsmen.

Grandma Moses

Grandma Moses
Grandma Moses

Grandma Moses (1860-1961) was born Anna Mary Robertson in Greenwich, New York. She was the third of twelve children whose father often bought blank newspaper for the children to draw on. At twelve she became a “hired girl” at local farms. In 1887 she married a farm worker Thomas S. Moses and had ten children, five of whom died at birth. In 1907 the family moved to Eagle Bridge, New York where Grandma Moses spent the rest of her life. After her husband’s death in 1927, she lived with her son on the farm and embroidered pictures in yarn in her spare time. At age 76, because of arthritis, she began to paint often using Currier and Ives prints and scenes from her childhood as inspiration.

In 1938 Louis Caldor, an art collector, “discovered” her work in the window of a Hoosick Falls drugstore. The next day he purchased all of her paintings, and arranged a showing in New York which brought her instantaneous fame. Grandma Moses worked from memory “portraying people actively engaged in farm tasks … as part of the established order of seasonal patterns.” Thanksgiving was one of her favorite motifs, celebrating family reunions, often with turkeys in the background trying to escape their fate.

home_thanksgiving
“Home for Thanksgiving” by Grandma Moses (Courtesy of robertneralich.com)
Grandma Moses Thanksgiving Turkey
“Thanksgiving Turkey” Grandma Moses
over_the_road
“Over the River to Grandmother’s House” by Grandma Moses (Courtesy of gseart.com)

Lydia Marie Child

Lydia Marie Child
Lydia Marie Child

Lydia Marie Child (1802-1889) was an American abolitionist, women’s right activist, novelist, and journalist. Yet her most enduring work was her poem “Over the River and Through the Wood” based on her early 19th century memory of visiting her grandparents’ home near the Mystic River in Medford, Massachusetts. The poem, later set to music, was originally published in 1844 in Child’s “Flowers for Children.

Over the river, and through the wood, To Grandfather’s house we go; The horse knows the way, To carry the sleigh, Through the white and drifted snow.

Over the river and through the wood, To Grandfather’s house away!
We would not stop, For doll or top, For ’tis Thanksgiving Day….”

New England Boys Song

Norman Rockwell

“Maybe as I grew up and found the world wasn’t the perfect place I had thought it to be, I unconsciously decided that if it wasn’t an ideal world, it should be, and so painted only the ideal aspects of it.”

So wrote Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), American painter extraordinaire, reflecting back on his life’s work. Recognized for his artistic talents very young, he received his initial commission at age 17. By his early 20s, he was designing the first of 321 covers for the Saturday Evening Post, a relationship that would last for 47 years.

In the late 30s the Rockwells settled in Arlington, Vermont, a perfect perch from which Norman observed the simple charms of small town life, and recreated them in his illustrations. The humor and folksy appeal of these images were dismissed by many critics as “overly sweet” tending towards “an idealistic or sentimentalized portrayal of American life.” Yet the popularity of his drawings for books and catalogs, Boy Scout calendars, and advertisement for products like Coca-Cola, assured his financial success and his popularity with a majority of Americans.

Norman Rockwell
Norman Rockwell in his Stockbridge, MA studio

Inspired by President Roosevelt during WWII, the artist created his Four Freedoms series which took seven months to complete. They include Freedom from Want, Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, and Freedom from Fear. The iconic paintings toured the United States in 1943, generating over $130 million for War Bonds. Rockwell also contributed scores of other works supportive of the war effort throughout the conflict.

In the early 50s, Rockwell and his family moved to Stockbridge, Massachusetts. His mature work began to focus more “on themes concerning poverty, race, and the Vietnam War.” One year before his death in 1977, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Gerald Ford. The President concluded: “His vivid and affectionate portraits of our country and ourselves have become a beloved part of the American tradition.”

Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving
Freedom from Want, The Saturday Evening Post, March 6, 1943:. Rockwell used his own Vermont dining room as backdrop for this famous painting. He enlisted family members and neighbors as models including his cook Mrs. Thaddeus Wheaton who is serving the turkey. Rockwell was concerned that the size of the bird suggested an “abundance” not experienced by everyone throughout the country . The work also showcases Rockwell artistic talents. One critic described the table setting as “one of the most ambitious plays of white-against-white since Whistler.” Regarding the turkey, Rockwell later quipped, “Our cook cooked it, I painted it and we ate it. That was one of the few times I’ve ever eaten the model.”
Cousin Reginald catches the Thanksgiving turkey
Cousin Reginald Catches the Thanksgiving Turkey, August 25, 1917. City slicker Reginald Claude Ritzhugh “repeatedly fell victim to the antics of his country cousins and their dog” in a series Rockwell did for The Country Gentleman between 1917 and 1922.
Norman Rockwell, Mother and son peeling potatoes
Thanksgiving, Saturday Evening Post, November 24, 1945: Norman Rockwell traveled to Maine to find the most “homelike kitchen” as the backdrop for this painting. The table was not “artfully arranged, but looks like it might for a big Thanksgiving meal in preparation.” After doing preliminary sketches in Maine, he returned home to Vermont to search for his models. The artist chose a neighbor Dick Hagelberg, a bombardier with 65 missions over Germany. On Thanksgiving Day 1945, Dick is “happy pulling K. P. duty with his real-life mother.”
Thanksgiving Blues, Norman Rockwell
Thanksgiving Blues: Saturday Evening Post, November 28, 1942. Rockwell always had sympathy for the “little guy” behind the scenes.

Categories: History

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4 replies »

  1. It is a fascinating story of slices of American life. This is one of the aspects of art that fascinates me, the possibility of making a moment immortal…. Interesting the work of Grandma Moses who drew these scenes from memory.

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