With very little doubt, Christmas has become an incredibly commercialized event. In fact, to an extent, the folks from the early 19th century would have a hard time recognizing what exactly we’re commemorating on the day which, at that time, wasn’t even considered to be a holiday. Only naturally, the visuals have also been affected. Although for the majority of us the Christmas vision is shaped solely via the aesthetics of Coca-Cola commercials, the roots of Christmas aesthetics go much further than that. To prove our point, here are some of the most iconic and, may we say, efficacious Christmas artworks from the time we were yet to be informed that Christmas arrives with a line of trucks and a gospel choir blasting in the background.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Hunters in the Snow (1565)
A painting that usually shuns the spectator with its unique blend of highly detailed imagery and beautiful contrasts, Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow offers more than initially meets the eye. With hunters coming home and peasants using their improvised ice rink, there is so much life going on in the tiny village under the dim, gray bluish sky. Despite the gliding crows and the razor-sharp cliffs in the background as reminders of the harsh environment they inhabit, the way Bruegel portrayed the architecture and the warm, contrasting hues adds an inexplicable sense of peace and comfort. The painting composition has a unique rhythm to it while, if you take a closer look, you’ll notice that every little figure down there is actually engaged in some kind of activity.
Caspar David Friedrich, Winter Landscape (1811)
Although Christmas is usually considered to be the peaceful and silent time of the year, more often than not, we also tend to view it as a somewhat jolly period. However, this was not always the general agenda, as proven by this painting by Caspar David Friedrich. In fact, back then (and, to some extent, even now) there was a very clear distinction between Christmas and Yuletide, with the former term being used strictly within the context of Christianity whilst the latter was somewhat a denominating term associated with pagan rites. Also, it’s a picture-perfect example of a romanticist painting. Thus, a larger-than-life, tragically loaded narrative was to be expected. As a result, we have an image that’s loaded with religious connotations. It boasts a dreary, monumental church in the background, randomly scattered crutches in the snow, and a poor man in his desperate invocation. And yet, maybe a miracle just took place, sparing the man of his crutches, and this is the most sincere expression of gratitude? We’ll stick to the latter scenario!
Geertgen tot Sint Jans, Nativity (1490)
Okay, there’s an incredible amount of paintings depicting the process of nativity. In fact, it might be one of the most popular subject matters the medium has ever tackled. That, however, makes a whole lot of sense, considering that the term is used to describe the birth of Jesus Christ. From the plethora of paintings featuring the whole ensemble, we picked Nativity by Geertgen tot Sint Jans. A product of the early Netherlandish painting (Flemish Primitives, if you will), this artwork stands out for the incredible ambiance it conveys. Though undeniably naive in some aspects, the painting boasts an incredible work with light that projects a kind of divine sensation that has been rarely seen in the medium prior and after the painting. It’s warm, clean, and totally impactful as far as these types of paintings go.
Norman Rockwell (And Basically Any Christmas-Themed Painting He’s Ever Created)
Nobody will ever match Rockwell’s knack for portraying the perfect 1930’s and 40’s Americana Christmas. With his uncanny ability to conjure up simple everyday sceneries one would often encounter in a suburban household during 1950’s America, Rockwell essentially introduced the concept of the total consumerist Christmas. During his exceptionally prolific career (4000 paintings and illustrations), the artist mainly focused on portraying idealized versions of a typical American family, stating that technicalities are not important to him (even though his works are technically sublime). Instead, his main concern was the setting and the mood. Needless to say, this resulted in imagery that could arguably be labeled as the archetypal Christmas aesthetic, one we think about every time the most wonderful time of the year arrives.
Thomas Kinkade (Again, All of His Christmas-Themed Artworks)
Now, this entry might summon some strong feelings as there’s really nobody on this list who could beat the controversy surrounding Kinkade’s work and personality. Despite being one of the most commercially successful artists of the 1990’s (it’s been estimated that one in every twenty homes in America owns a copy of his work), Thomas Kinkade has also earned the unpleasant distinction of one of the most critically bashed painters of the 20th century.
Colorful and radiant, Kinkade’s Christmas-themed paintings offer a particularly sweetened-up version of the event with pastoral houses covered in gleaming string lights resting in Tolkien-esque mountain valleys. With all of the somewhat infantile and kitschy beauty (with some critics pointing out that the insistent coziness actually causes quite an opposite, borderline sinister effect) these works present, the critics, unsurprisingly, have pretty much annihilated Kinkade’s oeuvre. The artist is also well known for practically converting his creative output into a corporate chain, replicating and mass-producing his artworks and often employing apprentices to finish a base he created by himself.
Haddon Sundblom – The Man Who Pretty Much Invented Santa Claus as We Know Him
From Dutch Renaissance classics to Coca-Cola ads, we’ve finally arrived to the man who, without any exaggerations, conceived the mental image of the contemporary Christmas constantly propagated by the media to this day. During the 1930’s, Sundblom created a series of advertisements for the Coca-Cola company, depicting the ultimate grandfather figure – a joyous, pleasantly chubby, red-cheeked guy with a silvery beard and a delicious beverage in his hands. For the next 33 years, up until his passing in 1976, Sundblom continued creating portraits of Santa, cementing his role in the advertising art industry and contributing to the commonly accepted idea of the Idyllic American Christmas. One might argue that Sundblom is responsible for the way the Western world thinks of the Christmas concept in general, which wouldn’t be a bad feat for any artist out there. However, there’s so much more to Sundblom’s library than just portraits of an infectiously sweet and crummy senior. Just like Norman Rockwell, Haddon Sundblom is one of the figures that pretty much shaped the 20th-century consumer thought pattern while simultaneously elevating the pin-up genre to a new level of appreciation.
Claude Monet, Snow Scene at Argenteuil (1875)
The unmistakable stroke pattern of Claude Monet instantly gives away this being an impressionist take on the theme. One of the three paintings that comprise the series, Snow Scene at Argenteuil, portrays the little of town of Argenteuil, which was Monet’s residence of choice at the time. With the winter of 1874-5 bringing an incredible amount of snow to Europe, it was Monet’s intention to capture on a canvas some of the crispness of a deep winter afternoon. The painting is notable for its minimal use of hues and the spot-on encapsulation of the season at its peak, giving a glimpse of the sentimental beauty of an afternoon that will end up with a comforting slumber by a fireplace. All of us remember the feeling of spending the entire day on the local hillside with an old sled and sodden overalls. Oh, the childhood.
Viggo Johansen, Silent Night (1891)
And finally, we’ve arrived at our last entry. Silent Night by Viggo Johansen, just like so many other paintings of Scandinavian origin, is a near-perfect encapsulation of the festive mood, the magic, the ever-present spirit, and the slightly melancholic vibe the particular event has been always attributed with. Not only do we get an accurate representation of a typical 19th-century family Christmas proceeding, the carefully portrayed lighting turns us into a guest and a witness of a bygone era, a Christmas pure to the core! As the humble title already suggests, there’s something genuinely holy about the atmosphere here.
So, these are 8 artworks, or, should we say, artists, that pretty much engraved the archetypal Christmas image into our common memory. Surely, these are not the only ones, as tastes and understandings of Christmas change as the decades go by. Fast forward to 2020, and the youngsters might only be aware of the Christmas seen in TV ads for Apple. While that’s still just a dystopian prospect, let us enjoy the holidays and the sincerity they bring into our homes and hearts!