If you grew up in the United States (and possibly even if you didn’t), you undoubtedly recognize what this scene is supposed to be, even if you don’t recognize the exact painting. Puritans in severe-looking dress gather around a table, blessed by a pastor, with Native Americans ready to participate in a community feast. The rough house in the background and the undeveloped landscape is obviously meant to look like New England in the early 17th century. Just about all the tropes of the classic “First Thanksgiving” story are depicted here. Few things could be more quintessentially American.
I hope that I don’t have to go through the usual corrections and debunking of the classic “First Thanksgiving” tale as most of us learned it in grade school; by now this kind of myth-busting is as clichéd a trope of modern Thanksgiving as the political argument over the dinner table with your conservative uncle who thinks that climate change is a Chinese hoax. Needless to say this painting (full title The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth), created by New York artist Jennie Augusta Brownscombe in 1914, is much more about the mythology of Americana than an attempt to show what really happened at Plymouth in 1621. (Notice, for instance, the Native Americans are dressed like Lakota Sioux!) But that sort of American romanticism, particularly about the Colonial and Revolution periods, was the mainstay of Jennie Brownscombe’s art. Over the nearly seven decades she was artistically active, she painted scenes of famous episodes in early American history and identity, many involving George Washington or other patriotic figures. Few were probably intended to be historically accurate. Brownscombe’s movement was called Colonial Revival, and it has similarities to the sort of “romantic nationalist” school of art that was popular in Europe in the mid-19th century.
But, accurate or not, the First Thanksgiving story is undoubtedly a key piece of American identity. It’s also a really lovely painting. Jennie Brownscombe was quite talented at capturing this sort of romantic vision, and I thought I would share it with you on this day before the Thanksgiving holiday.