Haddon Sundblom's Santa - Pure Genius

Haddon Sundblom began painting Santa Claus for Coke ads in the 1930's. His work is amazing. The wikipedia article on Sundblom says that "So popular were Sundblom's images of Claus (Sundblom's images are used by Coca-Cola to this day) that the urban legend soon arose that Sundblom had actually created the modern image of Santa Claus." I'm not sure that that isn't true.
This ad appeared on the back cover of Life magazine on December 23rd, 1957. So, it's pretty scuffed up. You can see this pretty clearly in Santa's coat.

Sundblom's technique has the frustrating (to someone hoping to mimic it) duality that it's photo realistic and impressionistic at the same time. In less artsy terms, it looks completely dimensional and real, but when you look closely, you can easily see his brush strokes. One other artist I can think of that achieved this is Frank Frazetta. Some artists are what I call "ashamed of themselves", like Boris Vallejo. Vallejo doesn't want to leave any brush strokes or traces of his presence behind. He wants to achieve absolutely smooth photo realism. Sundblom and Frazetta manage a freaky balance wherein you can see the brush strokes, but they don't get in the way of the image.

To me, this is like someone cleaning up a room. The obvious way to do it is by carefully picking up each object and putting it back where it belongs. Obvious, right? That's Vallejo. Sundblom, instead, runs around throwing junk up in the air, seeming haphazardly. But when he stops moving, everything is right where it should be, neatly tucked away. This is what his painting looks like to me. Loose and tight. Sloppy but flawless. I can't do it, and few can. It's obvious toget results by clenching yourself ever tighter and gritting your teeth till they crack. It's an act of greatness to look relaxed and even careless, while creating something incredible.

Now that I'm studying the painting, I noticed something funny. I know Santa is posing in a brightly lit room, but fire is still brighter that lamps. The fireplace doesn't look very "glowy" to me. It doesn't seem to be shedding any light on Santa's coat. Maybe that's intentional so that it wouldn't upstage Santa or the soda bottle, the obvious focal points of the piece? I dunno. Sundblom's was still a genius.


Ian Simmons said...

It's obvious that the reason there's no light emanating from the fire is because Santa is standing in front of a painting of a fireplace!

Yes, I, too, do what I can to preserve Sundblom's reputation as a flawless artist...

Anonymous said...

Maybe in those days, it was in vogue to have paintings of fireplaces instead of the real thing. Just like how cool it was to have a log fire on your TV screen in the 80s.

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