How did the artist picture the 1621 celebrations, and how did he convey his ideas of the event?
Jean Leon Gerome Ferris was a 19th-century painter. He was known for painting scenes from American history. He was born in Philadelphia in 1863, and he painted 78 depictions of significant moments in American history. Ferris was referred to at the time as a “painter historian.”
His paintings and illustrations depicted notorious [noteworthy] moments in U.S. history, such as when William Penn was greeted [welcomed] by friendly Indigenous people, shown in The Landing of William Penn — 1682.
Description and Analysis of the Painting
More than any other representation of Thanksgiving, Jean Leon Gerome Ferris’s 1912 painting, The First Thanksgiving, 1621, captures the modern, idealised view of English settlers and Native Americans celebrating their first harvest feast in friendship. The celebratory image depicts the superiority of the new arrivals over the locals.
According to the legend, when the first British settlers (mostly Puritans) arrived in North America (Plymouth colony) half of them died of starvation. So, Native Americans taught them how to grow vegetables and other plants that were unknown to Europeans. The Wampanoag helped the Pilgrims obtain food. They taught them to grow crops and showed them the best places to fish. A year later, it is thought that the settlers shared their first harvest with the Native Americans to show them their gratitude.
The painting expresses a joyful and peaceful atmosphere. One woman is smoking the peace pipe. However, there is something quite striking or shocking about the whole scene. Indeed, The Indians are sitting down – kneeling down as to beg for food – whereas the settlers are standing up. The Indians are placed on the same footing as the dog – a spaniel [it is known that one arrived on the Mayflower]-
and the children. The picture’s message is quite clear: New World men are equal in development to Old World children and animals. The Amerindians are infantilised. It is as if they could not take care of themselves and had to rely on the European settlers.
To some extent it can be said that this painting portrays the settlers in a rather positive light. The painting was made in 1915 to legitimize the pilgrims’ behaviour of the past towards the Native Americans, and find justification for the glory of Thanksgiving.
Contrary to the Thanksgiving myth, the Pilgrim-Wampanoag encounter was no first-contact meeting. Rather, it followed a string of bloody episodes since 1524 in which European explorers seized Wampanoags to be sold into overseas slavery or to be trained as interpreters and guides.
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