Holiday Greetings from Artists

This blog post originally appeared on November 27, 2018

This time of year we often begin to think about reaching out to friends and relatives to express our good wishes for the holiday season. Some of us craft long, witty and news-filled holiday letters to slip into paper cards; others send e-cards or connect for the holidays through social media. There was a time in the twentieth century when holiday cards were truly works of art. The Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art contains many artist-made holiday greetings that were preserved by their makers or recipients. The National Portrait Gallery, surprisingly, also holds a small collection of artists’ holiday greetings dating from the first half of the twentieth century. Three of these are included in the current exhibition, Eye to I: Self-Portraits from 1900 to Today

greeting card
Greets from the Fruehs by Al Frueh, 1923; Relief print and watercolor on paper, 12.3 x 14.6 cm (4 1/2 x 5 3/4 in.); National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; Gift of the children of Al Frueh 

Al Frueh’s Greenwich Village home was a center for artists, writers, and theatrical figures, many of whom he had caricatured through incisive drawings that appeared in the New York World in the 1920s.

Each year, Frueh designed a Christmas card for his friends, starring himself and his wife, Giuliette Fanciulli Frueh, as figures of fun. One time, they presented themselves as the puppets Punch and Judy, and another time they appeared as a pair of chimpanzees. For this card, they are shown carrying an enormous wreath. Frueh captured the essence of their likenesses in a few bold strokes and washes of color.

bronze face
Self-Portrait by Grant Wood, c. 1925; Brass and bronze, 8.2 x 5.7 x 2.5 cm (3 1/4 x 2 1/4 x 1 in.); National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; Gift of Esther Y. Armstrong 

The regionalist painter Grant Wood had a wry, sometimes dark sense of humor. This smiling caricature, with its dimples and pince-nez, was probably made around 1925, when the artist was still in the midst of launching his career.

Wood’s family members have recalled that at Christmas, he gave away between fifty and one hundred of these original tiny sculptures, made in gilded plaster. Through these small gifts, the artist literally presented himself and his compliments to his recipients. This cast metal version may have been created in the early 1970s.

Self-Portrait by Miguel Covarrubias, c. 1948; Watercolor, ink, and graphite on paper
14.6 x 9.6 cm (5 3/4 x 3 3/4 in.); National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Miguel Covarrubias, who moved to New York City from Mexico when he was nineteen, was best known for his popular caricatures of celebrities that were published in Vanity Fair and other leading magazines of the 1920s and 1930s. His visual wit could be piercing, as in this small sketch with which he greeted his friends during the holidays. The artist, who is shown carrying a portfolio of drawings, chose to exaggerate his features to fearsome effect, with soaring eyebrows, dark circles under his eyes, and sharp teeth.