The art of Kevin Blythe Sampson

THE ART OF
KEVIN BLYTHE SAMPSON

11/24/10

An American Thanksgiving, Skewered and Roasted - NYTimes.com

November 23, 2010, 9:00 pm

An American Thanksgiving, Skewered and Roasted

Disunion Disunion follows the Civil War as it unfolded.

Nov. 24, 1860

Winslow Homer’s editors asked him for an illustration to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday that week. They may have gotten more than they’d bargained for.

Just 24 years old, the artist had been contributing to pictorial magazines since he was barely out of his teens, quickly graduating to the pages of Harper’s Weekly, the most popular such publication in the country. Most of his work so far had been fairly conventional and commercial: portraits of political celebrities, sentimental Christmas scenes, depictions of the upper class taking its leisure on the beaches of Newport and the bridle paths of Central Park.

Occasionally, however – like slips of the woodcut engraver’s chisel – hints of something harder and sharper-edged had found their way into Homer’s prints. Two Thanksgivings ago he had shown turkeys being caught, slaughtered and plucked – and slyly arranged his composition to give viewers the point of view of one of the turkeys.

But the double-page centerfold that he prepared for Thanksgiving Day 1860 is about as subtle as the slash of a cavalry saber. “THANKSGIVING DAY, 1860 – THE TWO GREAT CLASSES OF SOCIETY,” Homer titled the engraving. The spread is divided into two halves: on the left, “Those who have more Dinners than appetite,” and on the right, “Those who have more appetite than Dinners.”

There is precious little celebration in Homer’s tribute to the national holiday, let alone flattery of well-heeled Harper’s readers. His portrayal of the rich is eviscerating. On the left-hand page, two overdressed, supercilious socialites peer through opera glasses from an ornate theater box. Above them, a self-absorbed young woman reads a magazine as a maid fusses over her hair. In the adjoining frame – least appealing of all – a lounging wastrel smokes his pipe by the fire, thrusting his fashionably pantalooned crotch into the viewer’s face. Lest anyone miss the point, the words “HARPER’S WEEKLY” are visible on the periodical at his feet.

Nor is Homer’s depiction of the poor an exercise in Dickensian sentimentalism, as it might easily have become. At the top of his engraving, a thief with stereotypically Irish facial features plunders a hen house for his Thanksgiving feast. A spinster toils at her needlework in a dim garret. A boy scampers home to his widowed mother and invalid sister clutching a loaf of bread, possibly ill-gotten. At the very center of the spread, an old miser pushes heaps of gold into a strongbox.

As national disunion loomed that Thanksgiving, so did hunger and misery for many Americans. Still rickety from the depression of 1857, the stock market had begun to collapse almost immediately after Abraham Lincoln’s election; Wall Street worried that debts owed by Southern planters – many of them mortgaged up to their eyebrows – would become uncollectable. Northern textile mills, fearing a disruption in cotton shipments from the South, began laying off workers by the thousands. “All our manufacturers are looking despondingly towards the coming storm,” a Philadelphian wrote. “An inclement winter is about setting in. What misery and distress it will witness if things continue in their gloomy state.”

Today, Winslow Homer is too often remembered simply as a masterful, reclusive painter of Civil War scenes and New England seascapes. “But even at this early stage in his career, Homer often aligned himself with society’s downtrodden, placing them in the foreground and challenging the viewer to identify with their condition,” the historian Peter H. Wood, author of several penetrating books on Homer’s paintings, told me in an e-mail. “Soon Homer’s moral attention, and that of Harper’s readers, would move beyond the have-nots of the urban North to the enslaved workers of the rebellious South. And yet at the same time he usually managed to remain a detached and neutral observer; even his most controversial scenes are carefully balanced.”

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In many ways, the 1860 Thanksgiving Day engraving presaged Homer’s later work. Holidays always fascinated him: Christmas, the Fourth of July and even Valentine’s Day all provided him opportunities for ironic play and social commentary. On later Civil War Thanksgivings, he would show ragged Union soldiers gorging themselves and getting drunk, and – at the war’s end – an amputee emerging from church.

Thanksgiving itself was quickly evolving on the eve of the war. It had only recently spread from being a regional holiday in New England to one celebrated throughout the country, even in the slave-holding South. Though usually falling on the last Thursday in November, the date each year was proclaimed by individual state governors and sometimes varied from place to place. In 1860, South Carolina – perhaps in a show of secessionist defiance – carved its turkeys a week earlier than the rest of the country. (In 1863, Lincoln would issue a nationwide Thanksgiving proclamation, as would all his successors from that day to the present: yet another instance in which the war elevated a newly powerful Union over states’ rights.)

The new president-elect himself observed the 1860 holiday, which fell on Nov. 29, in traditional fashion. “Mr. Lincoln, like the rest of Anglo-American mankind, feasted on a roast turkey,” a New York Herald correspondent reported from Springfield, Ill., “and having special cause to thank his Maker, attended Divine service.”

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An American Thanksgiving, Skewered and Roasted - NYTimes.com