Five Painted Turkeys

By Michelle Railey and Amos-Cola Staff

Just in time for Thanksgiving, an eccentric little art historical tour of painted turkeys.

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 eleven 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.

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

John James Audubon was actually born Jean-Jacques Audubon. 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 a well-known myth 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 First Nations indigenous peoples? Perfect. Don’t you think?

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

We have questions about this painting, this particular turkey (he’s in the front, red wattle blending in with the lady’s apron). Why is this family so very fond of this bird? Is this a pet or food? Both? In any case, it’s a family with a lady wearing a red scarf and an older gentleman: You can see the same duo 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. Zampighi massages a past nostalgic time in his paintings. Truth? Probably not. There is, in his work, a wistfulness, a way things never were but he might have wanted them to be. 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 picture frame on the wall, faded though it is: 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 coterminous with religion; feeding the flocks just another expression of devotion, a bowl of feed becoming a votive, a communion. (I think the common heavy use of blues and reds between Happy Family/Turkey and Holy Family iconography also “feeds” into this).

Jean-François Millet (1814-1875), Autumn Landscape with a Flock of Turkeys, 1872-73. Oil on Canvas.

“It is a hillock, with a single tree almost bare of leaves, and which I have tried to place rather far back in the picture. The figures are a woman seen from behind and a few turkeys. I have also tried to indicate the village in the background on a lower plane,” wrote Millet about his painting. Rather like the Zampighi painting, we find that the turkeys require some searching. It is so much more obvious to see the hooded figure on the left and the skeletal tree just off center. Millet is presenting a rural landscape and pseudo-genre scene: nearly an allegory (for all his “a woman,” the hooded figure looks rather more like Death or Time). But he cared enough for the turkeys to name them in the title of the painting. And that counts for something, turkey-wise. In the sixteenth century, North American turkeys arrived in Europe. First in Spain, then in France. The French turkeys became known as “dinde,” a corruption and abbreviation of “poulet d’Inde.” (Chicken or hen of the Indians). The first American import turkeys, in France, eventually gave way to French variants of the bird: Dindon Rouge de Ardennes or Dinde de Bresse or the Dinde Blanche d’Auvergne. In 1893, Mark Twain wrote a short story about a factionalized Millet: “Is He Living or Is He Dead?” He turned this into an 1898 play. So, if you twist the narrative hard enough, the French turkeys come home to, um, roost. Maybe.

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

In 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt delivered his Annual Message to Congress (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 Johan Peter’s ideal live, uncooked turkey. Sadly? Deliciously?). 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 six-ounce glass of water with their turkey. I love this painting. (Fun fact: the model for the woman serving turkey is actually Rockwell’s cook.)

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