A Tale of Two Thanksgivings
Posted by Andrea D. on November 24, 2010 - 11:55am
Categories: On the Walls

From left to right: Norman Rockwell, Freedom From Want (1943), Norman Rockwell Museum.
David Bates, Thanksgiving Dinner (1982), Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. 

In honor of Thanksgiving, David Bates’s Thanksgiving Dinner (1982) has been installed in the second floor galleries. The painting, which is one of Bates’s earlier works, depicts his first encounter with what he calls “the huge spectacle” of the holiday meal. Having grown up as an only child, Thanksgiving dinner (which occasionally “included Dickey’s barbeque” instead of turkey) was always a succinct, cursory affair with his parents. It wasn’t until after he married that Bates was first able to truly experience the full-blown, extended-family Thanksgiving ordeal.

Bates has acknowledged that Thanksgiving Dinner is his take on Norman Rockwell’s Freedom from Want (1943) and, stylistically speaking, there are many similarities between the two works. The number of guests seated at each table is the same, and they are all situated in similar positions. The white-haired women in the lower right corner of each painting wear comparable smiles. Both family matriarchs are in the process of placing the turkey in the position of honor, at the head of the table, with the family patriarch beside them, framed by a sunlit window in the background. The other family members smile and admire that which has been placed in front of them.

The perspective of each work is different, however. Rockwell’s image invites the viewer into the space—the man in the bottom right corner makes direct eye contact with us and the entire scene is foreshortened to make the viewer feel as if they have a spot at the table. In contrast, the table in Bates’s painting is flattened, highlighting the Thanksgiving feast. There is also more action in Bates’s work— pies are being passed across the table, the turkey is in the process of being carved. The viewer is more a voyeur of this domestic scene than active participant. Additionally, the styles in which the two works are painted are very different. Bates’s Thanksgiving Dinner is flat and painterly, far from Rockwell’s photorealism.

Another significant difference between the two works is scale. Rockwell’s original painting was about four feet tall and three feet wide, but it gained public attention in a much smaller version as the cover for The Saturday Evening Post in 1943 and was used in posters to promote war bonds during World War II. Bates’s version, on the other hand, is over seven and a half feet tall and over five and a half feet wide. He has commented that this is one of the first paintings that he did on such a large scale and that it was done in these dimensions in order to allow the viewer to appreciate “the details that aren’t ‘detail’ size; you can see the patterns on the silverware at the size they would be in real life.”

Bates will admit that his painting, like Rockwell’s, is an idealized version of Thanksgiving. There is no evidence of the stress that comes from preparing the food or setting the table. There isn’t a football game playing on a TV in the background and siblings aren’t threatening to throw mashed potatoes at each other. Still, Bates calls Thanksgiving Dinner “a conglomeration of different friends and family members, a memory painting from my past and present. I wanted to showcase both the food and the people, as well as the importance of that moment in time to all those individuals. It was always about that moment.”

**Quotes from the artist are taken from a conversation with the author, November 23, 2010.