Artist Alexander Anderson created the first known American image of Santa for the New York Historical Society’s St. Nicholas anniversary dinner in 1810. Nearly 60 years later, American cartoonist Thomas Nast created the first published newspaper rendition of the rounded fellow with a jolly belly. He called him Santa Claus, and endowed him with a gentle and compassionate spirit — and a giant sack of toys.
At the outset of the 20th century, the American public wholeheartedly embraced this persona — a sensibility that did not go unnoticed by the editor of The Saturday Evening Post, George Horace Lorimer. Over the following decades, Lorimer repeatedly turned to two of America’s most skilled and familiar illustrators — J.C. Leyendecker and Norman Rockwell — to paint the Anderson-Nast Santa each holiday season.
Newsboy and Santa—J.C. Leyendecker
As a rule of thumb, Lorimer’s deadline for the December Post cover paintings was September 1. Leyendecker, along with a few of his contemporaries, was sometimes known to procrastinate — just in case a more timely or relevant idea came to mind. Such an event took place in late August 1912 when news spread of the death of William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army. Leyendecker expressed his sorrow in his portrayal of the sad-sack Salvation Army Santa, so forlorn he is barely able to stand without support.
Playing Santa—Norman Rockwell
Rockwell had good intentions for this painting of a sweet-looking salesclerk helping an older gentleman assemble his Santa Claus costume. What fun! Well, not quite. Rockwell’s new wife, Irene, was the model for this painting, and she was less than pleased with the likeness. She also objected to those freakish masks hovering near her face. An omen of difficult times ahead? Their marriage would end in 1930.
Santa Behind Window—J.C. Leyendecker
This painting was Leyendecker’s second red-and-white, full-bearded, roly-poly Santa for The Saturday Evening Post. Twin wreaths and a warmly lit interior make Santa so jolly that when he smiles you can barely see his eyes! The all-is-well message was much needed after the difficult years of World War I.
Santa and Expense Book—Norman Rockwell
During difficult financial times, even Santa is concerned with making ends meet. In the economic turmoil following the war, it seemed as though everybody was on a tight budget.
Santa with Elves—Normal Rockwell
In January of 1922, editor Lorimer, feeling the weight of the season, commissioned Rockwell to paint a worn-out Santa for the coming December cover. The elves were Rockwell’s first attempt at cartoonish figures for a Post cover. If you look closely, you’ll see they are miniatures of his Santa model, John Malone. It was no trick to capture Malone in this pose, as he frequently dozed off in Rockwell’s studio.
Santa’s Christmas List—Norman Rockwell
Late in the summer of 1924, while vacationing in the small hamlet of Louisville Landing, New York, Rockwell sketched a number of local dwellings in preparation for this Christmas cover featuring an omniscient Santa. The house he finally settled on belonged to one Eugene Gibson, but the stone façade was copied from a local church. (Once again, the Santa model is John Malone.)
Hug from Santa—J.C. Leyendecker
No matter how heavy the pack or how pressed for time, good St. Nick will always pause for a hug. You can almost feel the enormous strain weighing down on Santa’s collapsing boots.
Santa Consulting Globe—Norman Rockwell
As Santa plans his Christmas Eve route, he zeroes in on the homes of the good children, making sure that there will be no omissions or errors. Perennial Santa John Malone, usually the model of calm, was unhappy about his working conditions for this painting. He complained about the uncomfortable costume — the mailpouch, tights, bells, those ruffles! — and attempted to argue for a change of wardrobe. As usual, Rockwell won out, but as a concession, he rewarded John’s forbearance with a halo.
Extra Good Boys and Girls—Norman Rockwell
While Santa was mapping his Christmas Eve route in 1939, the Rockwells were also on the road. In a life-changing and long-awaited shift, Rockwell was moving to rural southern Vermont. The model for Santa is Dan Walsh, a postman from New York.