Problematic Visual Culture

What Artistic Depictions of Thanksgiving Get Wrong

by Liam Conner, class of 2025

National American Indian Heritage Month, since its inception in 1990, celebrates the past and present histories of Indigenous peoples and honors Tribal sovereignty and self-determination. In an attempt to acknowledge the United States’ colonization of formerly Tribal lands, the month recognizes the evils of colonialism and its effects on how we perceive American identity.

Thanksgiving is a holiday that has become a staple for all the wrong reasons. The feast-focused celebration now features early-morning 5Ks, televised parades, football games, and boxed stuffing (albeit the best kind). In classroom retellings of the holiday, we learn that the Puritan Pilgrims peacefully ate alongside their Native American counterparts solely because they developed a friendly relationship. Unfortunately, many accounts fail to mention painful truths, like how the feast coincided with various wars and battles for land. The contextual and historical exclusion of the crucial facts of this story not only allows for these traditions to remain prominent but also disregards the toilsome reality of Thanksgiving and its colonial undertone.

One way to visualize American misconceptions around Thanksgiving lore is to engage critically with depictions of the holiday in art. From Thanksgiving’s earliest representations in the 1800s to the modern clipart we can download on our computers, incorrect retellings inform some of art’s most seminal pieces. 

George Henry Durrie (New Haven, Connecticut, June 6, 1820-1863) Home to Thanksgiving, 1867, hand-colored lithograph, 14 ⅝ X 25 in. co. Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon.

One of the first published renderings of Thanksgiving dates to 1867, four years after Abraham Lincoln codified the holiday as a national celebration. In George Henry Durrie’s “Home to Thanksgiving,” a snow-covered farm and its inhabitants greet their guests from the city. Rural tranquility marked with a jovial yet modest celebration demonstrates the escapist nature of the holiday. The idea of leaving a bustling city for the peaceful countryside still prevails today, as relatives convene in a typically calm and welcoming home situated away from the day-to-day. 

While perfectly describing the current nature of Thanksgiving, Durrie’s painting does not reflect its origins in history and conflict. The people in this scene celebrate the holiday that began in 1863, not the 1621 feast that the current holiday attempts to resemble. In no way, however, was the first Thanksgiving utterly peaceful. Instead, the feast most likely celebrated a recent massacre of about seven hundred Pequot Indians or the newly agreed-upon, yet quickly broken, peace treaty between the local Wampanoag Indians and the Pilgrims.

Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, August 8, 1863-1930) The First Thanksgiving, 1912 Oil on canvas.

Nearly fifty years later, Jean Leon Gerome Ferris’s painting “The First Thanksgiving” attempts to depict the holiday as dominated by the Pilgrims. They are postured above the Native Americans, standing up and feeding them as they sit on the ground. It is as though the Pilgrims were fully responsible for their bountiful harvests and societal advancement, leaving no thanks for the Natives, who were crucial to their survival.

Perhaps the most notable of these native guides is Squanto or Tisquantum. Tisquantum, a member of the Patuxet Tribe, was an English-speaking liaison between the Pilgrims in Plymouth and his own Tribe. His story is a prime example of how crucial facts are left out of the general public’s view of the holiday.  Many people tend to disregard the question of how Tisquantum learned the culture and language of the English. Many years before, European colonizers captured Tisquantum and sold him into slavery. Because of this enslavement, Tisquantum spent years in England, forced to adapt to the language and ideas of his colonizers.

Norman Rockwell (New York, New York, February 3, 1894-1978) Freedom from Want, 1943. Oil on canvas, 45 3/4″ x 35 1/2″. Norman Rockwell Museum Collections.

A more contemporary look at Thanksgiving includes one of Norman Rockwell’s most famous pieces. “Freedom From Want,” part of a four-part series, displays a family sitting down to eat the Thanksgiving meal. Instead of gawking at the mouth-watering turkey, the family members smile at each other, grateful for their presence. They have no need for a bountiful meal; they just need each other.

Despite the wholesome and anti-materialist representation of this modern feast, the painting still disregards any historical context. The holiday may have signified familial love and gratitude, but that does not mean we should ignore its true and violent origins. Wars across the “new world” surrounded the time of the feast, making it nothing but cheerful. Therefore, depicting the holiday as strictly pleasant is wrong and misleading.

Before the colonization of the “new world,” there were approximately five million American Indians, but by 1800, this population had declined to only 600,000. European colonizers brought disease, quickly killing many Native peoples, yet the wars they waged were the most impactful. In a greedy search for land, colonizers decimated Native populations and enslaved the remaining survivors. As a result, Europeans and their colonial desires wiped many tribes completely out, one of them being the Massachusett, who resided on the very land that Boston College now inhabits. Because of this, a month of history is not enough, as many Native Americans call for reparations to begin amending the crimes of the colonizers.

While these famous works of art certainly depict a widespread misunderstanding of Thanksgiving, there are even false and problematic pieces like these on Boston College’s campus. In Gasson Hall’s rotunda, there are four large paintings on the upper walls created by Francis Schroen, SJ. Two of them display colonizers and their interactions with the local Tribes. 

While attempting to praise these saints, these religious images blatantly show how European colonizers forced Christianity onto the Native Americans. In the first image, it seems as though the holy figure leads the Natives in search of more land. He uses his domineering religion to colonize another land that is not his own. Similarly, the second image depicts a religious ceremony happening right in front of the Natives’ eyes. Placed in the background, they watch from afar, and the painter shows them gazing in a state of awe. The painting inflates the importance of Christianity, deeming it superior to the religion of the Natives. Again, on land that is not their own, the colonizers celebrate divine providence and the false sense of manifest destiny.

It is striking to see these paintings within the halls of Boston College, as they display extremely problematic scenes of colonization. To praise these saints that clearly imposed themselves and their religion on the native population is seemingly against the values of our institution. Unfortunately, this example is not limited to the walls of our own university. Reminders of the incorrect retellings of Thanksgiving and the colonization of the “new world” riddle themselves throughout the United States. Depictions through art are just one of the many ways our modern world ignores the horrific actions of the European colonizers. If we continue to acknowledge these works as accurate, we will never be able to honor the true history of our nation. Instead, we must know that these depictions are wrong and educate ourselves to the greatest extent.

Problematic Visual Culture

Problematic Visual Culture: Hair Removal Advertisements & Beauty Standards

By Joy Cheng, class of ‘23

Do you know where our beauty standard of the 21st century comes from and why we shave?  What we find attractive today is rooted in the advertisement boom of the 1950s. Along with the rise of fashion styles like short sleeves and bikinis, companies advertised hair removal products and perpetuated beauty standards of hair removal, especially for women.1 We should, therefore, be wary of the constant exposure and pressure from advertising agencies of profit-hungry companies that harmfully dictate shaving and hair removal trends.

When we think of advertisements, the words “visual culture” are not usually the first thing to pop into our minds. However, advertisements often are forms of visual culture—like paintings, photographs, or videos and it is through these mediums that advertisers can associate beauty and happiness with hair removal. When we see ads like the one below, we often compare ourselves with these models—desiring to be happy, proud, and feeling good about our bodies. We draw an interesting connection between being beautiful and shaving; “if I want to be just like that model, I should shave my body hair too!” As a result, we come to the conclusion that “if I want to shave my body hair, I’ll need to buy a razor.” In other words, advertisements are a form of visual culture that attempts to influence consumers’ actions in a way that leads them to purchase products. As a result, corporations promote hair removal, making products like razors a necessity to gain profits.

Pictured above is a 1978 magazine ad for the hair removal product Nair.

In the modern digital age, we are more exposed to advertising than ever before. Advertising is omnipresent, from billboards on the highway to Instagram ads to full-page spreads in newspapers and magazines. Sometimes advertisements are not evident at first glance—a shelf of sleek Gillette razors at CVS is a form of advertising too. With ‘winner of Allure’ or ‘best of 2021’ signs, our eyes are bound to pay attention to these catchphrases. Yet, most of the time, we do not realize how they influence our thoughts. With so much exposure to advertising, it is no wonder that we begin to internalize the messages they present. As we internalize messages about hair removal, we may perceive ourselves as ugly for having body hair—even though body hair is perfectly normal! The goal of advertising is to sell products and capitalize on both real and manufactured insecurities. By perpetuating beauty standards of hair removal, advertisers influence women’s self-perception in unhealthy ways by telling people that they need to shave in order to be beautiful.

Advertising taglines reveal explicit attempts to create beauty standards for hair removal. For example, one ad from the 1900s asks us, “are you going to permit unsightly hair on your face, arms, underarms, and limbs to spoil the freedom which awaits you at the beach?” while another reads, “summer dress and modern dancing combine to make necessary the removal of objectionable hair.”2 These ads are trying to generate shame about our body hair—it is something shameful that spoils our fun and how others perceive us. We see similar ideas in modern-day ads, like a Gillette Venus advertisement that states, “you’re a woman, shave like one,” implying that shaving is necessary for women.3 The message is consistent throughout decades—we need to eliminate body hair because it impedes us from being viewed as beautiful.

Gillette’s advertisement for Venus Embrace Razor in 2012.

Today, people are challenging the notion that we need to shave to be beautiful. Body hair is becoming more and more accepted as beautiful, and we see that some celebrities are confronting conventional beauty norms that mainstream culture imposes onto us. Julia Michaels, a singer, announced on Twitter that she is “not shaving [her] armpits ever again… social norms can eat an eggplant.”4Mo’Nique, a comedian, says, “I tried shaving one time, and it was uncomfortable and painful… I said never again would I do that to myself.”5 Beyond celebrities, we see public opinions moving towards body hair acceptance through movements like #Januhairy, a social media campaign encouraging women to grow their body hair for the month of January.

Left: Pictured above Mo’Nique showing off her unshaven legs at the Golden Globes in 2017. Photo courtesy of Getty Images. Right: Instagram account showing support for #Januhairy movement.

Beyond celebrities and popular sentiment, there are also emerging shaving companies that promote body hair acceptance. One such company is Billie, a razor company, which states that “what you do with [your hair] is up to you – grow it, get rid of it, or comb it.”6 Another company, Estrid, is running a “Super Hairoes” campaign to help women feel more comfortable about their body hair.7Although we could be cynical about the whole thing and claim that these companies are just trying to profit from public sentiment, it does do its part in bringing us to question certain status quos and their origins. Even though they sell hair removal products, they are not trying to generate insecurity about body hair and profit from it. Rather, they are trying to support consumers with their own choices about body hair. I think this is what we need—advertising that supports our body hair choices rather than enforcing uncomfortable beauty standards.

Problematic Visual Culture

Problematic Visual Culture: Orientalism and Expedition Photography

By Michaela Brant, class of ‘23

The Problematic Visual Culture series seeks to highlight works of art, film, and other media that display and perpetuate harmful, discriminatory ideas. The series also aims to address the effects of these works on our individual and collective biases.

On April 22, 121 people logged onto a Zoom webinar to hear Assistant Director Diana Larsen and student ambassadors Ata Chowdry, Matt DiBenedetto, Ethan Starr, and Peyton Wilson (from the Collections Management Committee) present their research on items in the McMullen’s permanent collection. The presentation centered around expedition photography in the Middle East and North Africa, and how the photos and practices embody the idea of Orientalism. 

DiBenedetto contextualized the discussion through the framework of Edward W. Said, a literary theorist who coined the term “Orientalism” in his 1978 book of the same name. “The Orient,” while it often refers generally to the areas east of the Mediterranean Sea and Southeast Europe (the Middle East, Asia, and North Africa), does not technically refer to an actual geographic region. Instead, “the Orient” is a region of imagination. It is a place for Europeans to project their curiosities, fascinations, and anxieties. DiBenedetto summarized that the point of the “Orient” (East) and the “Occident” (West) was to create two disparate essences. This binary was key for the rationalization and subsequent explosion of European imperialism and colonialism. European powers were able to convince people that places in the “Orient” needed to be “civilized” by “benevolent” countries. 

Larsen discussed that Orientalist works began as propaganda paintings to display non-European regions in a light that justified imperialism and colonialism. By the late 1800s, these works also became popular decoration and tourists’ souvenirs. Expedition photographers accompanied royal family members and the wealthy on trips to photograph “the Orient.” One example of an expedition photographer that Larsen gave was Francis Bedford. Born in London, Bedford began his career photographing architecture mainly in England during the 1850s to sell to middle-class tourists. The Queen of England hired him to travel with Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, on his trip to the Middle East, where Bedford photographed landscapes, architecture, and figures.

Bedford and other photographers of this time, capitalized on the abundance of sun in the region, making the manipulation of contrast between light and dark easier while producing photographic prints. According to Larsen, this contrast added mystery and provided the viewer with a “tantalizing glimpse of the Orient.” The problem with these expeditions and resulting photographs was that the monarchy funded them to justify imperialism and colonialism, providing a constructed, idyllic view of these regions and people. 

Schroeder & Cie. (Zürich, Switzerland), Karnak: Way of the Sphinxes and the Pylon of Euergetes II, c. 1870-75. Image courtesy McMullen Museum of Art.

DiBenedetto tied these scholarly ideas about Orientalism to the Swiss company Schroeder & Cie.’s photograph Karnak: Way of the Sphinxes and the Pylon of Euergetes II. The photo depicts Karnak, a massive and complex religious center of the Kingdom of Thebes in Egypt. DiBenedetto pointed out the positioning of the Egyptians on the road versus the European expeditioner on the side. He noted how the photograph seemed posed, and the separation between the two groups of people visually reinforces the binary of East versus West and other Egyptians. Additionally, the location of the photograph, and the ruins in the background, leave out the signifiers of the vibrant modern society of Egypt in the 19th century. Between the distinct othering of the Egyptians and the intentional background construction, this photograph suggests that Europeans of this time had a moral obligation to “civilize” Egypt.

Unknown, Rue de la Casbah d’Alger c. 1870s. Image courtesy McMullen Museum of Art.

Wilson chose a photograph by an unknown photographer, titled Rue de la Casbah d’Alger. Algeria was France’s oldest North African colonial holding. Wilson invited the audience to consider the composition of the photograph: the subject is isolated from any other people or structures that could give a sense of the vibrant society in Algiers. The social and geographical contexts that would make French presence there problematic were wholly left out. French occupation of Algiers led to the destruction of religious spaces, turning them into Christian churches and military buildings. Again, photographs like this disregard the reality of “the Orient.” This image is stripped of its context and is used to reinforce French imperial and colonial agendas through staging Algerian society in opposition to European values. 

C. and G. Zangaki (Greece), Arabs Posing in Front of Suez Canal at Suez City c. 1885. Image courtesy McMullen Museum of Art.

Chowdry presented a photograph from 1885 by the two Greek brothers, the Zangakis, who photographed Europe and the Middle East. Chowdry used this opportunity to tie the history of the Suez Canal into the concept of Orientalism. The location of the Canal played an essential role in the “Scramble for Africa,” as Britain and France fought over who would control the land. Europe developed imperialist interests in India and China (especially in the South Pacific for France) once they realized they could connect the Mediterranean and Red Seas, allowing for shorter trips to Asia. England seized control of Egypt in 1882—and the troops that had invaded and occupied it did not leave until 1956. The construction of the Suez Canal in Egypt, which put Egyptian workers like those in the photograph in immense danger, allowed Westerners to have more control over the East as both colonizers and tourists. With little to no real benefit to the Egyptians, the Canal became a symbol of British and French imperialism. The photograph and the Canal are yet more examples of Europeans capitalizing on the sentiments of fascination and entitlement cultivated around Asia. 

Avraham Hay (Baghdad, Iraq, 1944), The Wilderness of Sinai, 1986. Image courtesy McMullen Museum of Art.

Starr rounded out the presentation with a more recent photograph, Avraham Hay’s The Wilderness of Sinai, which the McMullen featured in a 1996 exhibition. This photograph, among others, was originally paired with engravings by J. M. W. Turner, a Romantic artist. The carvings and photographs are from similar visual perspectives. However, Hay is operating as a documentarian. His objective, said Starr, was to show the facts on the ground, contrary to other photographers from earlier in the presentation. Since Hay is both from and lives in the region being documented, he has a unique perspective. However, there are still questions to be asked with this work. How do we consider this work in the context of today’s conflict between Israel and Palestine? What do we make of the presence of a church in this photograph, and who has a claim to this site? Although on the outer limits of Orientalism, this photograph still invites us to ask questions about where and from whom the work originated.

This “Into the Collection” event, which McMullen Museum Director Professor Nancy Netzer called “absolutely dazzling,” was the most attended of its kind this year. If you missed it, you can watch the full talk here. This event highlights the importance of thinking critically about the origins of different artworks within our museum’s holdings. All art is intentional, so it is important to consider the historical, political, and social contexts surrounding a work. Whether in a museum, on the internet, or anywhere else, DiBenedetto said it best: “the images that we encounter in daily life are more than meet the eye.”

Works cited:

Edward W. Said, Orientalism, (New York: Vintage Books, 1979).

Diana Larsen, Ata Chowdry, Matt DiBenedetto, Ethan Starr, and Peyton Wilson, “Into the Collection: Orientalism and Expedition Photography,” April 22, 2021, McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College.