Thanksgiving Holiday Reflections…

Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, Thanksgiving at Plymouth, 1925, Oil on canvas, 30 x 39 1/8 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

On view in NMWA’s current exhibition, Trove: The Collection in Depth, is Thanksgiving at Plymouth, painted by Jennie Augusta Browncombe in 1925. As last-minute pies are baked and extended friends and family gather, this painting not only brings to mind the tradition of Thanksgiving, but also reframes the story within the context of memory.

In the painting’s details, Brownscombe depicts the deeply entrenched rituals of our Thanksgiving myth—Plymouth settlers and the Wampanoag tribe together, sharing in an autumn harvest feast. Women carry baskets filled with potatoes while roasted pheasants lay across the white-clothed table. This image lends to the nostalgic air of this time-honored New England scene of 1621, or what has historically been deemed “The First Thanksgiving.”

As few contemporary Americans realize while celebrating this holiday, the scene also reveals colonial revivalism and America’s tradition of idealizing the past, thus creating an “invented tradition.” Thanksgiving did not appear as a holiday until 1863, when, after a 35-year-long campaign by Sarah Josepha Hale (the woman who penned the rhyme “Mary had a Little Lamb”), President Abraham Lincoln decreed the last Thursday in November a holiday, in attempt to unify the warring states.

Artists such as Brownscombe have re-created this vision, playing on shared experiences of collective memory, often in lieu of historical accuracy. Although Brownscombe’s research into the subjects portrayed proves her investment in the painting, the discrepancies of the Wampanoag clothing (using Sioux headdresses from the Plains tribes) and log cabin in the background (rather than straw and mud houses that would have been historically correct) demonstrate her reliance on the collective memory of the Pilgrim feast.

However, Brownscombe’s work provided exactly the sentiment that Lincoln hoped would prevail as the Civil War raged. She created an emotional moment of solemnity and gratitude, freezing an event that continues to have profound reverberations for Americans. This collective memory appears in various guises throughout Trove, and Brownscombe’s painting portrays only one instance in history of second-hand memories.