Salvador Dalí, Santa with Drawers, 1948. Hallmark Art Collection. Courtesy of Hallmark Archives.
Salvador Dalí was no stranger to bizarre imagery—in fact, many would say he invented it. But in 1948, the crowned Surrealist king painted perhaps one of the most unconventional works of his career. It showed a giant Santa Claus bursting from a snowy tundra, drawers protruding from his legendary belly. They contained Dalí’s signature melting clocks and little white bunny.
“It was the founder of Hallmark’s idea. Santas were always a hit,” explains historian for the Hallmark Archives Samantha Bradbeer of the anomalous, albeit wonderful Dalí painting. “Dalí’s first series of cards had just been pulled from the shelves, so he really wanted to design a popular card. He thought this might be it.” Hallmark, the biggest greeting card company in the world, had commissioned Dalí, and other up-and-coming artists of the decade, to design holiday cards earlier that year. But Dalí’s initial attempts—which depicted a headless angel, a glowing but featureless baby Jesus, and three wise men atop snarling camels—proved too avant-garde for the everyday buyer.
“Unfortunately, they just didn’t sell,” continues Bradbeer. “So that’s when Dalí asked for our founder J.C.’s advice.” Dalí’s second go, however, didn’t work out either. When the artist presented his unique Santa to Hallmark founder Joyce Clyde Hall, affectionately known as J.C., he wasn’t a fan. While Hall graciously purchased the painting for Hallmark’s permanent art collection, it was promptly stashed in a closet where it hid for many years. Only recently has it seen the light of day, on the walls of the company’s sprawling Kansas City headquarters.
Dalí is just one of several now-renowned artists who Hallmark collaborated with in the 1940s and ’50s, during the company’s first big boom. Hall had long admired great artworks and the illustrious artists who made them. Even before the company became the wildly successful behemoth it was in the ’40s, he brought his team of in-house artists to the local Nelson-Atkins museum to glean inspiration. But once Hallmark became a household name, Hall set his sights higher.
“He wasn’t shy about reaching out to the big-name artists, writers, actors, and even politicians of the 20th century,” explains Bradbeer of the simultaneously ambitious and starstruck, art-loving Hall. “He became close friends with many of them.” And those friendships often resulted in new Hallmark products. Walt Disney was the first big-name creative who Hall approached. In 1932, Mickey Mouse began appearing on Hallmark’s holiday cards. The licensing agreement between Disney and the greeting card company still stands strong today.
But it wasn’t until 1948 that Hall forged a professional relationship with a group of artists whose work was as comfortable on canvas and on the walls of art galleries as it was in magazines and on greeting cards. The first commission signed was with Norman Rockwell, of Americana paintings and Saturday Evening Post-cover fame. From 1948 to 1957, he designed 32 original holiday cards for Hallmark, most of them capturing Santa, or an American dad dressed as Mr. Claus, in various funny, domestic moments. His card showing the mythical figure dozing off, while his elves do all the work, was the favorite amongst buyers; 150,000 copies flew off the shelves in 1955. “That’s a lot of cards in the 1950s, in a single year for a single design,” explains Bradbeer.
Left: Courtesy of the Hallmark Archives and Norman Rockwell; Right: Courtesy of the Hallmark Archives and Saul Steinberg.
Hall’s interest in these artist collaborations extended beyond his admiration for their work or the success they’d bring the company. “He also felt that this was a really a great way to bring art to everybody’s homes, through reproductions,” says Bradbeer. “In the 1940s and 1950s, not everyone had access to a great art museum, so believed that having fine art on greeting cards would make it more accessible. Yes, the card was a form or communication, but it was also a gift in itself.” Indeed, over the years, Bradbeer has received notes from numerous individuals asking for the stories behind the Rockwell cards their families have kept for generations.
That year, Hall also licensed the rights to several paintings by Grandma Moses, a self-taught artist from upstate New York who began her practice at the age of 78. “I think J.C. was really drawn to her panoramic scenes of country life, the changing seasons, rural customs, because it reminded him of growing up in small-town Nebraska,” explains Bradbeer. “It was also imagery that Americans really responded to, at the time.” In the process of forging the series of cards with Moses, J.C. also befriended her—and introduced her to Rockwell. Rockwell visited her on her 88th birthday, which resulted in a portrait of Moses sitting at her drawing table. These days, the painting hangs in Hallmark’s headquarters, as part of its permanent collection.
A few years later, in 1952, Hallmark embarked on another important partnership with hot New York artist Saul Steinberg, whose satirical, whimsical drawings had risen to fame from the pages of The New Yorker. “He had already designed several Christmas cards for MoMA, but their distribution was limited to people who could visit the museum,” says Bradbeer. “Steinberg was excited about reaching a larger audience.” The artist proceeded to make several visits to Kansas City over the course of seven years, and produced 120 original Santa drawings in the process. True to Steinberg’s style, the resulting cards are mischievous, playful, and inspired. They show Mr. Claus napping in hammock strung up in a Christmas tree; skating loop-de-loops on a frozen pond, with his reindeer buddy; or wearing pajamas and holding the hands of his dog and cat friends.
While the Steinberg cards have been retired for many years, they’ve remained in the archive as inspiration for contemporary designs. “Our in-house artists are really looking at them again. You might even see them reappear on the shelves next winter,” explains Bradbeer.
The same goes for Dalí’s designs, too. “Greeting card buyers might be ready for them again,” Bradbeer continues. “We’re talking about re-releasing them next winter, too. It would be great to see those cards again, and give them a new life.” This writer, for one, would scoop them up in a second.