That said, we found this terrific full page ad in the Dec 11th, 1950 issue of LIFE. Even though it's uncredited, it's definitely painted by Haddon Sundblom, which we've spotted before in his natural habitat of a Coke ad.
Sundblom was on the Coke payroll from the 1930s on into the 1960s, so that's why we can be sur ethis is one of his. Also, his style is often imitated, but never well.
Here's a fun bit of trivia. Ever wonder who's doing all the Coke Santa paintings now? Nobody. Sundblom's Santa paintings are still used for Coke's advertising. I would have thought they'd have hired a new artist to copy his style when he died in 1976, but they're just using the same art. The huge billboard of Santa you drive past on your commute? Still Haddon Sunblom. Cool, huh? I'd be interested to see the facility where they store all of Sundblom's original paintings. That would be a hell of a tour.
Paintings like this were routinely heavily referenced. That means the artist would organize a photo shoot with a model, and use the resulting picture(s) to do the painting. Sorry to shatter any illusions, but paintings like this aren't just conjured out of the artists imagination... especially when there's a deadline.
So, wondering what Sundblom looked like, the P.A.G! Research and Googling Squad found a picture of him. There's our boy! Hey, wait a second...
If I had to guess, I'd say that's Sundblom's face on Santa. White hair with strangely dark eyebrows? Check. Prominent, slightly shiny lower lip? Check. Smile lines at the corners of the eyes? Check. Shape of the nose.?Check. Sure, he fattened himself up a bit, but that's Haddon himself!
But back to the idea of Coke having "created" our image of Santa. Here's a bit from Snopes on the subject.
...the beloved persona of Santa Claus is somewhat distinctive in that his appearance is neither one that has been solidified through centuries of religious tradition nor one that sprang fully-formed from the imagination of a modern-day writer or artist. Santa Claus is instead a hybrid, a character descended from a religious figure (St. Nicholas) whose physical appearance and backstory were created and shaped by many different hands over the course of years until he finally coalesced into the now familiar (secular) character...
...However, illustrations of lavishly bearded Santas (and his predecessors), showing figures clothed in red suits and red hats with white fur trimming, held together with broad black belts, were common long before Coca-Cola's first Sundblom-drawn Santa Claus advertisement appeared in 1931.
There was a period of overlap during which the modern Santa Claus character coexisted with other Christmas figures and other versions of himself, as his now-standard appearance and persona jelled and his character grew in popularity to become the dominant (secular) Christmas figure in the western world. However, that period had ended before Coca-Cola began utilizing Santa for their holiday season advertisements. As noted in a New York Times article published in 1927, four years before the appearance of Sundblom's first Santa-based Coca-Cola ad.
Coca-Cola's magazine advertisements, billboards, and point-of-sale store displays were for many Americans their primary exposure to the modern Santa Claus image. But at best what Coca-Cola popularized was an image they borrowed, not one they created.