Historic Painting: “The First Thanksgiving” by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, 1914.

This view of the first Thanksgiving in 1621 is very far from accurate, but it's extremely American.

Historic Painting: “The First Thanksgiving” by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, 1914.

Next week is, of course, American Thanksgiving. 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 rustic 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; I should hope that after 400 years nobody still believes that the story is literal truth. 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 depict anything that really happened at Plymouth in 1621. Notice, for instance, the Native Americans are dressed like Lakota Sioux--not exactly lighting up the charts on historical accuracy or cultural sensitivity. 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. I doubt any were intended to be historically accurate. These pictures were as political as they were artistic. 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 19th century, and which I have featured on this blog before.

Jennie Augusta Brownscombe herself was one of the most important artists in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She worked as a commercial illustrator as well as a painter, and studied and traveled between the United States and Europe, connecting its artistic communities. Though she never married, her life partner was George Henry Hall, another important 19th century American painter. They shared a studio in the Catskills for years. Though her father was an immigrant from England, Brownscombe was a member and strong booster of the Daughters of the American Revolution. She died in Bayside, New York, basically Queens, in 1936.

Though wildly inaccurate, the First Thanksgiving story is undoubtedly a key piece of American identity. Jennie Brownscombe was quite talented at capturing this sort of romantic vision, and I thought I would share it with you on this week before the Thanksgiving holiday.

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