CLASSIC HOLIDAY IMAGE GRACED COVER OF 1923 LITERARY DIGEST COVER
By Ariana Hartsock
Few images hold a sense of nostalgia in the American consciousness as that of Santa Claus visiting the homes of youngsters on Christmas Eve.
Artists and writers have long depicted a variety of renderings of St. Nick, many of these influenced by the 1823 publication of Clement Clarke Moore’s poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” now widely known as “The Night Before Christmas.” By the 1920s, the classic American Santa, embodied as a jolly old man in a red suit, was ubiquitous in the work of popular illustrators – and familiar to American audiences.
Similarly, few artists have captivated the nation’s imagination, particularly around Christmastime, as adeptly as America’s most beloved illustrator, Norman Rockwell. From his earliest advertisements to his patriotic World War II subjects, Rockwell’s virtuoso was in his ability to capture the essence of American culture and a view of a more innocent time in our country’s history.
Rockwell’s The Night Before Christmas highlights Heritage Auctions’ May 3, 2019, American Art auction.
Depicting a sleeping child and dog on Christmas Eve, with a jubilant Santa Claus peeping out from the shadows, this original oil on canvas comes directly from the distinguished collection of Jack and Martha Campbell of Houston. An evocative and tender scene, this work was featured on the cover of the Dec. 23, 1923 issue of Literary Digest and was Rockwell’s fifth and final cover illustration for the magazine.
The Night Before Christmas is a prime example of Rockwell’s painting style of the 1920s and ’30s. A great admirer of Rembrandt, Rockwell often paid homage to the artist by utilizing chiaroscuro (light-dark) effects, as here, in the candlelight that illumines the central composition. In this nocturnal scene, the child and dog are nestled in a wingback chair, having dozed off waiting for Santa.
The fire in the nearby hearth has cooled, and a patchwork quilt wards off the night chill, with the child’s toes peeking through. It is only after we observe the slumbering pair that the subtle figure of Santa Claus emerges from the background, and we sense our own childlike exhilaration at the sight. The Night Before Christmas is a beautifully composed work, which told a familiar and magical tale to popular audiences in 1923, just as it does today.
ARIANA HARTSOCK is director of fine art at Heritage Auctions in Dallas.