Art History By Number: Turkey Day

By Michelle Railey

Turkey day

1.) Johann Wenzel Peter (1745-1829). Painting of a Naragansett turkey, late 18th-early 19th century.

This Bohemian painter, gunsmith, coin engraver, and sculptor is also known as Johann Wenceslaus Peter and variants thereof. He’s a very difficult man to pin down on the internet, actually. But I think we can all agree that this turkey is magnificent, nearly the Platonic ideal of a turkey. Peter was considered the premiere animal painter of Rome in the nineteenth century and his work can be seen at the Villa Borghese and the Vatican Museums. Pope Gregory XVI purchased 11 of Peter’s paintings for the papal collections. The Naragansett turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) is a cross between the eastern wild turkey and the domestic turkey. It is unique to North America and is named for Rhode Island’s Naragansett Bay. And it should probably always be seen and/or pictured against a stormy gray sky.

2.) John James Audubon (1785-1851), Plate One, Meleagris gallopavo, Birds of America, 1827-1839.

John James was actually born Jean-Jacques. He was born in what is now Haiti and immigrated to the United States in 1803. He is known as the premier naturalist painter and ornithologist of the United States. In his work painting birds of all varieties (each of which is life-sized!), he actually identified 25 new species. His work was mainly executed in watercolors with some gouache and he is, of course, best known for his massive life’s work The Birds of America (1827-1839). And this wild turkey cock (Meleagris gallopavo silvanis) is the very first plate. It is well-known that Benjamin Franklin wished for the wild turkey to be the U.S.’ national bird and emblem, so for this to be the first plate of a book of American birds, painted by an immigrant, of a bird frequently devoured (sorry, meleagris) on a holiday begun by other immigrants and the Native peoples? Perfect. Don’t you think?


3.) Raffaelo Sorbi (1844-1931) The Meal of Turkey, 19th century. Oil on panel.

Turkeys originated in North America, probably Mexico, and were domesticated beginning approximately 2,000 years ago. The Spanish brought the turkey to Europe and a certain William Strickland is credited with then bringing the turkey to England (he incorporated the bird into his coat of arms thereafter). And how it got to Italy? Who knows? But it did by the 19th century and our friend Raffaelo painted a peasant girl feeding one. This painting is executed in an Impressionistic manner, perhaps a nostalgic and rustic subject for a painter caught in an Italian Industrial Revolution in a time period straddling the past and the modern. Many of his paintings are religious or history paintings, but this one, fits in with those he painted Impressionistically: a compendium of peasants feeding chickens and turkeys, wheat in the field, solitary men walking down isolated country lanes. He has paintings executed in a more academic manner, slicker, less impasto, tied to the past or tied to the present, but frequently lonely. In any case, it’s a beautiful bird, isn’t it?


4.) Eugenio Zampighi (1859 – 1944) The Hungry Turkey (A Happy Family)

Just what is it with Italians and turkeys? This painting in particular is a little bit odd: why is this family so very fond of this bird? Is this a pet or food? Both? In any case, it’s another family employing the lady with the red scarf and the older gentlemen. You can see them in Zampighi’s other works such as Idyllic Family Scene with Newborn, Admiring the Baby, First Steps, Grapes for Baby, and He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not. Zampighi was a photographer and painter, working out of his home studio. I think it is safe to assume that the red scarf and the dresser/lamp combo in the background were staples, as were the models. Whereas Sorbi emphasized a solitary present and past, Zampighi massages a past nostalgic time. Truth? Maybe not. There is, in his work, a wistfulness, a way things never were but he might have wanted them to be. Zampighi is less experimental in style than is Sorbi, but, like his fellow Florentine, he seemed to be fond of the bird. What I love best about this painting is the incorporation of the Holy Family in the background: a trope which has a long history in the art of painting. The family in front (an older father-type, a young mother in red scarf, a toddling innocent probable-male-child) mirror the family in the frame: the Virgin Mary, the Holy Son (the implied doddering Joseph somewhere). Sure, Zampighi adds an older sister and that turkey. But it’s quite plain that family is religion; feeding the flocks just another expression of devotion, a bowl of feed a votive, a communion. (I think the common heavy use of blues and reds between Happy Family/Turkey and Holy Family also “feeds” into this).


5.) Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) Freedom from Want, 1943. Oil on canvas.

In 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt delivered his State of the Union address. A major theme of that speech (only eleven months before Pearl Harbor) was “The Four Freedoms:” Freedom of Worship, Freedom of Expression, Freedom from Fear, and Freedom from Want. Freedom from Want was described by Roosevelt as “economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants.” Rockwell painted a series of all four Freedoms to accompany a series of essays on the same subject for The Saturday Evening Post. This is one of Rockwell’s most famous paintings (remember it in The Simpsons, or the Blind Side?) and, among American paintings, it might figure as one of the most iconic, right up there with Nighthawks, Washington Crossing the Delaware, and American Gothic. It is common to describe Rockwell, rather derisively, as an illustrator. But, as other, much-brainier critics have pointed out, Rockwell’s technique of depicting white-on-white in this painting is masterful, akin to Whistler. For my part, I love the expression on the guy in the far right bottom corner; love his little face piping up into the frame, jovially and elf-like. I love that the turkey looks robust and delicious and perfectly cooked: the ideal turkey to eat (the “after” of Peter’s ideal live, uncooked turkey). I love the family and friends around this table. Who could be so lucky to enjoy a meal like this? Americans. At Thanksgiving. Every year from now on and ever after, god willing. Although, if we could have a little more food on the table (those three green beans and that pile of fruit better be artistic substitutes for, like, thirty more pounds of food: noodles, pie, mashed potatoes, stuffing, mac and cheese, rolls, green bean casserole), this picture would be perfect. Oh, and let’s add wine glasses and diet coke to the mix, Norman: not everyone enjoys a parsimonious 6 ounce glass of water with their turkey. I love this painting. It just makes me want to feed that family. Have side dishes, will trade for some of that turkey. (Fun fact: the woman serving the turkey is Rockwell’s cook.)

Happy Thanksgiving. May your turkey ever be moist with a crispy skin.

“I feel a very unusual sensation— if it’s not indigestion, I think it must be gratitude.” — Benjamin Disraeli




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