Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, Curator of Prints & Drawings
In this small etching, measuring only 3 x 3”, British printmaker Samuel Herbert Maw depicted a long line of people filtering into a church on a snowy evening. The inscription in the lower left reads, “Soir de Noel”, or Christmas Eve. A hand-printed greeting card, inside there is a salutation: “with all good wishes for xmas & the New Year from Sam, Kathe Maw.”
Today, technology allows us to send holiday greetings in so many ways, whether it’s through zoom calls, TikTok videos, or e-cards; and yet, there is something so satisfying about receiving a personal letter by mail.
Maw’s handmade print is a veritable work of art in miniature. In fact, in 1875 Louis Prang promoted the first holiday cards as inexpensive pieces of art to an American audience. His Boston printing company allowed the masses to exchange cards, an activity previously reserved for the upper class who had the means to purchase imported cards from London. Prang & Co.’s annual cards featured competition winning designs by artists including Thomas Moran and J. Alden Weir. Design submissions were even the subject of exhibitions.
American Greetings Company was established in 1906, followed by Hall Brothers, Inc., (Hallmark) in 1915. In 1934, Samuel Golden founded The American Artists Group in New York City, a greeting card company that intended to market contemporary American art by publishing high quality reproductions of art on greeting cards. By 1948, the number of cards exchanged at the holidays reached 1.5 billion.
The Fort Wayne Museum of Art’s collection features a number of handmade holiday cards that were likely made for family, friends, and colleagues. These small-scale artworks can give insight into an artist’s personal life, historical events, and their work as a whole.
Elizabeth Shippen Green (Elliott) received training at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts with Thomas Eakins, Robert Vonnoh, and Thomas Anshutz. She later broadened her studies with well-known illustrator Howard Pyle. She contributed drawings to many children’s books and leading magazines, including 23 years with Harper’s Weekly.
In her 1934 card, we realize that the artist is married to Huger Elliott, an architect, who is at work drawing with a quill at his drafting table. She pours “Good Will” into the ink well. On the shelves are other cheery wishes that can be added to the concoction. Her trademark initials ESGE are inscribed across the bottom.
The 1936 Christmas card chronicles the couple’s 25 years together as they relocated to Providence, Cambridge, Philadelphia, and finally to New York. Each vignette captures the personality of each former home. The delicate borders are reminiscent of an elegant invitation.
The Elliott’s 1916 card made twenty years earlier is small, almost the size of a bookplate. An artillery man scans the barren battlefield, perhaps their tribute to the servicemen fighting in the war in Europe. Despite being prepared for conflict, a bright star illuminates the dark sky and brings hope.
Thomas Nason presents a more traditional approach to a Christmas card in his wood engraving featuring a shepherd gazing up at a star, like the Star of Bethlehem. The figure is cast in shadow and the details of the landscape are minimal, giving the print a timeless quality.
Tod Lindenmuth focused on the season’s weather with this wintery view of a town. The trees are bare and the artist used the un-inked, light-colored paper to suggest the snow covered roofs and ground. Lindenmuth is known for his association with a group of printmakers working in Provincetown (Massachusetts) in the 1910s. Their medium of choice was woodcut or linocut.
Bower’s clever jabs poking fun at commercialism and society’s values are so characteristic of her drawings. Her card portrays a fashionable woman, shown from the front and back, modeling a festive red dress, black boots, and black belt with jingle bells and holly trimmings. Inside the card, holiday cheer is combined with Santa’s note of appreciation to a host of businesses who are responsible for Mrs. Claus’ complete makeover. Bower provides a laundry list of services for the remarkable transformation ranging from plastic surgery to permanent tattoos and finishing school. Note: adipose tissue and cellulite have been responsibly recycled.
Johnston’s woodcut seems less about making a holiday card than a further exploration of form typical of her imaginative work. Small primordial shapes fill the border that at the same time feel like they could be ancient symbols but also a modernist, abstract vocabulary.
In 1998, art collectors Peter Norton (of Norton Antivirus Software) and his wife began the Norton Family Christmas Project in which they annually commissioned artists from their collection to create a multiple that they would gift to friends, colleagues, and some institutions. Gifts in the FWMoA include works by Lorna Simpson and Kara Walker.