When we think of Santa, most of us see a jolly old man in a bright red suit with a gentle smile, rosy cheeks and long white beard. That iconic image was created for The Coca-Cola Company by illustrator Haddon Sundblom in 1931. This holiday season, 14 original oil paintings of Sundblom’s beloved Santas are on view at Callanwolde Fine Arts Center from December 1 – 16, 2014. The vintage paintings are one highlight of Christmas at Callanwolde, now in its 40th year.
The Coca-Cola Company wanted to link Santa Claus and Christmas to its flagship soft drink because people generally thought of Coke only during the hot summer months. Sundblom’s Santas worked so well, they quickly became the most enduring and well-loved depictions of Saint Nicholas around the globe, transcending national borders, still enduring the test of time.
“There’s a wonderful historic connection between Callanwolde and The Coca-Cola Company,” explains Peggy Johnson, Callanwolde’s executive director. “Callanwolde was the home of Charles Howard Candler, the oldest son of Asa Candler,” Coca-Cola’s founder. Charles Candler was president of the Company from 1916 to 1923, and lived at Callanwolde for 39 years, from 1920 to 1959. Today, Christmas at Callanwolde is among the most cherished public celebrations there.
According to Ted Ryan, director of Heritage Communications at The Coca-Cola Company, “With hundreds of precious objects in our archive, the Sundblom Santa Claus paintings are among the most prized pieces in the collection.”
- After Sundblom’s first Santa painting for Coca-Cola in 1931, he painted Santa Claus in various scenes for magazine ads, billboards and holiday collectibles for the next 30 years, producing at least one Santa painting a year until 1964.
- Initially, Sundblom used his friend Lou Prentiss as a live model for Santa’s smiling face saying, “He embodied all the features and spirit of Santa Claus. His wrinkles were happy wrinkles.”
- People loved the Coca-Cola Santas right away, and paid close attention to them. When any change was noticed, letters were sent to The Coca-Cola Company. One year, Santa’s large belt buckle was shown backwards since Sundblom used a mirror to paint himself for reference after Prentiss passed away. Another year, Santa had no wedding ring and people wondered what happened to Mrs. Claus.
- As testimony to their impact, most of Sundblom’s original Santa paintings have been shown at the Louvre in Paris, the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.
- Sundblom was so well-known as an illustrator that his fees were as high as $1,000 per painting – quite substantial in the 1930s when a gallon of gas was about 19 cents, a loaf of bread was about eight cents and the average price of a home was only about $6,000.
By Lisa Frank,