☛ “Santa Claus as Christmas Tree” by Saul Steinberg, 1949 or later, offset printing, black-and-white lineshot, 7 x 5 inches (17.8 x 12.7 mm), published by The Museum of Modern Art, collection of Tom Bloom. Image retrieved from artdaily.com.
This Christmas card by American illustator Saul Steinberg was first published in a book in 1951 (see The Story of the Christmas Card by George Buday, London: Oldhams, p. 43), but the design itself was likely created three years earlier, in color, when Saul Steinberg was commissioned to draw a ten-foot Christmas tree for the front hall of the Museum of Modern Art. From a press release sent by the MoMA on December 15, 1948:
Museum Exhibits Christmas Tree Drawn By Saul Steinberg―A ten-foot Christmas tree drawn and colored by Saul Steinberg, well-known cartoonist, is on view for the holiday season in the front hall of the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53 Street. Since the Museum did not want a conventional Christmas tree, Mr. Steinberg was commissioned to draw his idea of one. The tree turned out to have a Santa CLaus head and feet, with birds and candles on his beard and a bell hanging from his cap. The branches of the tree are covered with toys and 60 varieties of Steinberg birds which he selected as his favorite from over 1,000 preliminary sketches. (PDF)
The design was most likely used the following year to create the much smaller drawing for a Christmas card sold by the museum. However, it was hardly the first collaboration between Steinberg and the MoMA. The celebrated illustrator had started designing Christmas cards for the museum as early as 1945. Joel Smith explains in Saul Steinberg: Illuminations:
When Steinberg began designing Christmas cards for The Museum of Modern Art in 1945, his inaugural effort featured Santa Claus riding a reindeer bareback amid a flurry of snowflakey abstractions. His line casually united contemporary high style and the popular cartoon ―a formula ideally suited to the wares of an institution trying to sell the American public on modernism― and he stuck with it in the cards he designed for MoMA and for Brentano’s Books through 1952. The formula had not been his invention, however. In 1944 while he was off at war, his friend Alexander Calder got the ball rolling with line illustrations for the nursery rhyme collection Three Young Rats, a collaboration with then MoMA curator James Johnson Sweeney.[…]
To this already engaging formula, Steinberg added a line as virtuosic as Calder’s was “primitive” and a mind bursting with unspent cartoon ideas. In cards for MoMA, his Santa went on to figure-skate, play the violin, surmount a monument, shake hands with his own double, and become one with the Yule tree. Invariably, shod in wingtips, Steinberg’s Santa is your warm, eccentric, infinitely wealthy uncle ― a figure of infantile (meaning perfect) fantasy. The museum cards attracted attention, allowing Steinberg to cross over in 1952 from MoMA’s relatively small buyership to a huge one at Hallmark. (Joel Smith, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006, p. 118)
The drawing for the Christmas card displayed above was included in the exhibition Saul Steinberg: Illuminations which opened at The Morgan Library and Museum, New York, in 2006 (see The Saul Steinberg Foundation for more details about the exhibition). The book by Joel Smith I just quoted is the official catalog of this exhibition: the drawing is reproduced on page 119 (item no. 23A), along with another one of his Christmas design. The image was also included in a press brochure produced by The Morgan Library and Museum (PDF).
A couple of days ago, illustrator and educator Kate Bingaman-Burt spotted three original Saul Steinberg holiday drawings over at Hallmark headquarters. She took some photos and uploaded them to her Flickr photostream. She kindly allowed me to reproduce them below. Those drawings –along with various work by Steinberg– are sometimes offered for sale on eBay (at the time of writing, a copy of the card with the music conductor and the cats is available).
Another design created by Steinberg for a Hallmark’s Christmas card was shared at the venerable art-and-illustration blog Attempted Bloggery: see “Saul Steinberg’s Santa for Hallmark” (Dec. 8, 2014). Below is only a detail of the card: follow the link at Attempted Bloggery for the whole picture.
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