Thanksgiving 2003 is a large portrait format oil painting by American artist John Currin. It depicts in fine detail three young women of similar appearance (thin with pale skin and blonde hair) within an ornate setting decorated with marble columns, a chandelier and a silver-framed mirror. The woman on the left of the composition, holding the silver lid of a saucepan in one hand, feeds a spoon to a woman in a black dress next to her, who is arching her neck and opening her mouth in a manner reminiscent of a young bird or fish. The third woman, who is wearing a brown smock, sits on the right of the painting with her head bowed and a grape in her hand. On the table in front of the women is an enormous uncooked turkey, along with a bunch of grapes, an onion, a white plate and a vase of flowers (which contains both decaying and vibrant roses). Although the title Thanksgiving refers to the American holiday when turkey is traditionally served, the highly mannered style of this work – as well as the somewhat anachronistic clothing and décor depicted – seems to recall the tradition of northern European Renaissance painting.
Currin has claimed that Thanksgiving, completed in New York where he has lived and worked since the late 1980s, was ‘a failed painting that sat around in my studio’ until he decided to return to it when his wife, the artist Rachel Feinstein, became pregnant. Currin explained,
The funny thing is that the painting took me exactly nine months to finish, and the painting turned into an allegory of Rachel’s pregnancy. Certain kinds of paintings were on my mind at the time – Dutch genre paintings, Velázquez’s bodegones – but as soon as I began, it became more about Rachel, and she posed for the figures a lot.
(Quoted in Weg and Dergan 2006, p.326.)
Following this account the uncooked turkey in the painting might be seen to refer to Currin and Feinstein’s unborn baby. Alongside his wife, who Currin has often used as a model for the women in his paintings (see, for example, Honeymoon Nude 1998, Tate T07519), the figures in Thanksgiving also appear to have been inspired by a computer clip-art drawing owned by Currin (reproduced in Weg and Dergan 2006, p.326), which features a family cooking together in a similar grouping to the one seen in the final painting.
In Thanksgiving, however, Currin appears to add a gothic or sickly edge to a traditional family scene, with the raw flesh of the turkey, the dying flowers, the sombre clothing, and the strange expressions and elongated necks of the two standing figures providing a sense of unease. In this respect the work seems to echo the analysis art historian Robert Rosenblum offered in 2000: ‘A trip to “Currinland” is like science fiction, in which most familiar things – old master paintings, girly photos, cherry ads for wholesome American products – are uncannily transformed into new kinds of humanoids. In his eerie universe, everything looks both commonplace and fantastic’ (Rosenblum 2000, p.72).
The representation of young women in scenes that evoke notions of kitsch, irony or the grotesque has been a common theme throughout Currin’s work. In 1989 and 1990 he created a series of paintings of teenage girls that seemed to mimic studio or school portraits. His work in the 1990s became increasingly imbued with sexual imagery, often of a cartoonish nature (featuring women with oversized breasts) or in the style of 1950s’ magazine spreads. From the late 1990s references to the history of European painting became more evident in Currin’s work, with portraits such as Thanksgiving that seem especially indebted to the German Renaissance artist Lucas Cranach the Elder (c.1472–1553). As Currin remarked in 2000, ‘it’s always me remembering an old master and combining it with contemporary ad images. Those are the two things that compel me’ (quoted in Rosenblum 2000, p.78). In his subsequent work (see, for example, John Currin, exhibition catalogue, Gagosian Galley, New York 2010), pornographic imagery has become a central concern for Currin.
Thanksgiving was first displayed at Sadie Coles HQ gallery in London in September 2003 where it was the largest of eight new oil paintings exhibited by Currin. From November 2003 to February 2004 it was the final painting in Currin’s major retrospective show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
Robert Rosenblum, ‘John Currin’, Bomb, no.71, Spring 2000, pp.72–8.
John Currin, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, New York 2003.
Kara Vander Weg and Rose Dergan (eds.), John Currin: The Complete Works, New York 2006, pp.326–7, reproduced p.327.
Supported by Christie’s.