Art History By Number: Turkey Day


Turkey Art for Thanksgiving

The turkey is irregularly migratory, as well as irregularly gregarious. -J. Audubon

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 as 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.)


6.) Mom.

I’m sure I will embarrass her, but my mom whipped up this sketch of a turkey in 2006-ish on a note to me. I think it’s the best turkey ever. She’ll be appalled that I included it here, but frankly, none of these other stupid half-assed birds can hold a candle to the appeal of this friendly guy in his pilgrim hat. My mom is the best. Probably irritated with me now. But still the best. And a very talented artist and draftsperson. I’m grateful for her every day.


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

Happiness, Doubled by Wonder

“For each new morning with its light, / For rest and shelter of the night, / For health and food, for love and friends, / For everything thy goodness sends.” – Anonymous (not Emerson, as often attributed)

Thanksgiving 1982

Image: Hallmark Charmers, 1982

“I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” – G.K. Chesterton

“I'll sing the sunlight, and the bright / Soft smiling stars that gem the night; / For gifts of good / Thant God hath spread along my way, / The lilt of birds in tuneful play, / The harvests full and flowers gay, / The whole day long / I'll sing my song / Of gratitude!” – John Kendrick Bangs, “My Song”

“All that we behold is full of blessings.” William Wordsworth


Hi, 1980s Birthday Girl!

1980s Birthday Cards

Credits: (A.) American Greetings 1983, (B) Made in Canada 1981 (C) Hallmark 1986 (D) Hallmark 1981 (E) Suzy Angel, Angelove, Ambassador Cards 1985 (F) Ambassador Cards 1980 (G) Hallmark 1980 (H) Betsey Clark, Hallmark 1982 (I) Laurel, American Greetings Corp 1981

Especially for HLR, who's having a birthday today and is forever funky fresh and totally rad.

In the Suds (The Apparent Almost Fall of the Great American Soap Opera)

You might have been me yesterday, waiting on blood to be drawn for your annual physical. So you're in the lab waiting room, all anonymous grey with medical pamphlets scattered on cheap tables and a staff who seems just a little irritated to find you there. There's also a cheap Staples clock that isn't hung on the wall (too much effort required), it's just leaning, balanced precariously on top of a file cabinet. And, if you're me, you might have thought for the bill you're going to receive in the mail that the lab could actually afford both a hammer and a nail, not to mention a plastic clock without the Staples logo.

But mainly, if you would have been me, in the abysmal impersonal universe of blood lab waiting rooms, you might have noticed that there was a soap opera playing on the t.v. in the waiting room.

A soap opera! There was a guy with an eye patch. There were tears. There was a woman with very glossy nails, very full hair, and so much mascara.

I did not realize that soap operas were still living. And yet, it appears that they do, at least around 1:45 p.m. in waiting rooms.

It was sort of comforting. I never watched them but it was a very comforting thing to see. It seemed old-fashioned and suddenly I was maybe 7 years old again, home sick from school, and dozing through game shows and cheesy soap operas on the couch, not really paying attention.

So the lab-ette might have asked you to follow her. She might have been 12 or 14. Still, if you were me, you would have pointed at the t.v. and said “I didn't even know soap operas were still on!” The lab-ette would then look at you, bored and disgusted, and reply “I don't even pay attention” with a wave of her hand.

So much for being friendly.

It will occur to you later that the lab-ette is actually so young she does not know what a soap opera is; that the fact it's still on t.v. is not surprising because she already thought it was gone; it's actually super-boring because she's never heard of them one way or the other.

Plus, the lab-ette hates people.

Soap operas are really very nearly dead. Young people don't know what they are. But, at least in waiting rooms, they are not yet really most sincerely dead.

(And a special random note: if you've never seen the movie Soapdish and you actually know what soap operas are, check it out. I still believe all restaurants are called “restraints.”)

The rain, the berries, the night, and November

Rainy November night

I showed this photograph to my dear heart. He said “what is it?” and then “ooh, that's nice.”

Well, it's my habitual fascination with tree branches, winter berries, autumn leaves, and the way rain drops crystallize the whole mess.

I like the way this tree has a center. I like the way this photo could also be of the human circulatory system or the universe or fractal-somethings.

I like that there is a sense of micro and macro; that it could be anything or nothing.

But me, I know it's November raindrops, the last 5 leaves, and the beginnings of the berries which will be frosted over in January. When these berries appear, I know winter is coming. When these berries are full? Winter is here. When this tree's bark looks black in the night and has been kissed with rain drops? Well, that's when I get fascinated. Light, water, wood.

Nature never ceases to amaze me. I have a friend who detests the fall. He says the trees die and it makes him sad. I say the trees hibernate, more or less. I favor Robert Frost who advised the trees to “keep cold; dread fifty above more than fifty below.” I favor the rain on the bare branches, knowing that the structure, the essential tree, if you will, is safe and needs this time without the need to nurture the leaves.

And at nighttime, when rain highlights branches? The photograph may not be good, but it's the kind of thing I'm always grateful to see. Even in November, perhaps especially in November. The leaves are going. The berries are arriving. The leaves will be back.

All is right with the world.

Ming Dynasty Carving: Mammoth Tusk

Ming Dynasty Mammoth Tusk Carving

At Treasure Island, Las Vegas

Do you know what irritates me? When a beautiful piece of artwork is displayed without any acknowledgement for the culture or time which created it.

Such is the case with this carved mammoth tusk at Treasure Island, Las Vegas.

As it turns out, this is a piece dating to the Ming Dynasty Chinese culture (14th – 17th centuries). The sign on display with this astounding treasure is more concerned with the wooly mammoth, which is totally great, of course, but humans carved a million tiny ivory humans onto this tusk. They carved elephants and fish and pagodas, lilies, umbrellas, and then a million more little warriors.

Sure, the 30,000 year-old Wooly Mammoth contributed a tusk and it is lustrous and large and amazing. But real human hands over roughly a hundred years carved all the tiny figures on this tusk (without messing up, mind you, can you imagine the stress?). Real human hands. They were Chinese. And this piece is amazing. So why, dear Treasure Island in Las Vegas where this is exhibited, did I have to scour the Internet to find out who made this?

Treasure Island is owned by investor and mogul Phil Ruffin and has been since 2009. The tusk is his, and presumably, so was the choice to label it with the what and not the who.

Treasure Island (TI, as they call themselves) is a mixed bag: the remnants of Buccaneer Bay and pirate ships, a Neptune sculpture that is beyond, and this extraordinary mammoth tusk carving on display (weirdly, being ignored by people hitting neon buttons on machines which took much less time to program than this tusk required to be carved). Treasure Island: three steps forward, two steps back. The TI theme (non-theme) is uninteresting and generic; the remnants of an exciting fake-Caribbean theme tease the visitor: this might have been cool; it's almost cool.

But inside, if there is not much to consider, there is this magnificent tusk, carved with hundreds of bare-chested, miniscule warriors. It's incredible. The mammoth tusk, uncarved, would be worth looking at, but these carvings? Can you imagine the dexterity, the patience, the skill which went into this?

It makes me sad that the slot machines had more people hovering, but I'm very grateful that this tusk is still on display for free in a public space. Go and look at it. It's at Treasure Island, Las Vegas. And while the sign does not tell you so, the carving is Chinese and dates to the Ming Dynasty.

Maybe someday they'll get another sign. That would be good. (Dear Mr. Ruffin…).

Dreams of Life

November tree