Santa, Snow, and Brillo? Holiday greetings from 20th-century artists

Whether merry, wintery, or whimsical—artists from Moses Soyer to Yoko Ono gave their greeting cards a personal, heartfelt touch.

Courtesy Helen L. Kohen papers, 1978-1996, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution
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Santa Claus takes a break in this early 1980s greeting card, sent by Arturo Rodrigues and inspired by Vincent van Gogh's three "Bedroom" paintings.
Courtesy Helen L. Kohen papers, 1978-1996, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

Holiday cards are often cherished for the simplest reasons—a tiny handprint from a grandchild, a photo from a friend living abroad or just a welcome bit of merriment.

In 1843, when British civil servant Sir Henry Cole came up with the idea, he had a more utilitarian purpose in mind. He called on his friend John Horsley to design a three-paneled card with humanitarian themes: images of people caring for the poor, familial scenes where love abounds. If you’re lucky enough to have inherited one of those original cards, they’d be worth several thousand dollars today, versus their original one shilling price tag.

Clearly, the significance of a holiday card can range broadly, from a sentimental icon to a post-New Year’s Day coffee cup coaster, depending on how you feel about the person who sent it. In 2019, with all the high-tech ways to transmit messages available, are holiday cards even a “thing” anymore?

Most definitely. That’s why Americans will purchase 1.6 billion Christmas cards this year, according to the Greeting Card Association. Digital content is overwhelming, but consumers crave the permanence of important moments, says Sondra Harding, senior director for corporate communications at Shutterfly, an Internet-based publishing service.

“The traditional family portrait still exists, but is often accompanied by other less formal, more candid snaps,” Harding say, adding that consumers are increasingly personalizing their holiday cards using high-resolution smartphone photos.

Cutting-edge digital printing techniques now allow customers to add beautiful metallic foil and glitter onto cards. Artificial Intelligence has even infiltrated the greeting card industry: algorithms will help you pick the best photos, crop the photos for you, and lay them out on your product. (Read how Artificial Intelligence will revolutionize our lives.)

Katie Raabe, a product design strategist for Vistaprint, says her key challenge is to identify trends from fashion, interior design, floral design, etc. and to decide which ones translate best to the holiday card format. “If you take jewelry or home décor, there’s a big trend with gold and geometric shapes. Watercolors are popular now, and abstract paint designs incorporating holiday colors. Some customers like the traditional items, but a lot of people just like a beautiful design, or simple wording like ‘Merry Everything’ versus a particular type of celebration.”

The more panache the better, especially if the family Christmas cred is at stake.

On the other hand, what if the plainest, most mundane Christmas salutation imaginable came from a world-renowned artist? For Mary Savig and her colleagues at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, mining boxes of donated papers, notes and artwork to unearth seasonal greetings resulted in the 2012 book project, “Handmade Christmas Cards Sent by Famous Artists to Their Friends.” It curates the images of original watercolors, etchings, silk-screen prints, drawings and mixed-media objects created by prominent artists as holiday salutations to friends and colleagues.

Years of poring through the collected papers and artifacts of artists like Josef Albers, Alexander Calder and Robert Motherwell yielded vibrant material that for years Archives staffers had only displayed through informal office holiday exhibits. But in 2010, Savig says her supervisor, Archives Deputy Director Liza Kirwin, encouraged her develop a formal project.

She was uniquely qualified for the undertaking. Savig’s mother Patty marketed holiday cards for a commercial greeting card company for almost 40 years. “The book was really just an intersection of some of the really cool cards we already knew about and my own personal interest and background in the field.”

As Savig discovered, those handcrafted Yuletide artifacts were revered for their surprising simplicity, or considered bold extensions of their creator’s raison d’etre.

They cover the full range of media from simple hand-painted or printed entries to really elaborate examples intended for the recipients to hold onto.

One of Savig’s personal favorites is an object by a surrealist artist named Kay Sage. It consists of one paper clip, two rubber bands and a piece of cardboard with the word “Noel” written on it. “As with a lot of the items, it was probably created from just bits of mixed media that were lying around her studio.”

Another surrealist painter, a Chicago artist named Julia Thecla, created a whimsically complex Season’s Greeting for Katharine Kuh, a curator friend who’d also been a mentor. Thecla loved the holidays, and she was known for her vibrant seasonal paintings and the homemade cards that were sold in city boutiques.

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A subversive take on Raphael's famous cherubs from the Sistine Madonna, Julia Thecla's holiday card features a painting by the artist of a cigarette-smoking angel next to a wine bottle.

As Savig describes, “(Thecla) made this really elaborate card with a black background, and she splattered paint on it to look like snow. Then she made a snowman out of Styrofoam circles and decorated the snowman with watercolors. In the snowman’s hand is a tiny little envelope that contains a tiny little card that says, “For Christmas and the New Year, I wish you one bag of all your secret wishes.”

Besides their seasonal relevance, Savig says the images offer insights into the lives and times of their creators.

“What I appreciate most is that they show the relationships of the art world, “ she says. “You can understand that a lot of these artists were part of close-knit communities, and you can map these relationships. It also humanizes them more, because you can sometimes see that they were playful or charming, even if their art wasn’t.”