I came across an 1838 painting called Saint Nicholas by Robert Walter Weir in this month’s Smithsonian magazine. Let’s just say it’s not the image of Santa Claus that most of us conjure today. The painting shows a trickster character, elfish with a mischievous (almost malicious) expression and clothes that honor the Old Dutch inhabitants of Weir’s native New York. Of course, Weir’s depiction is largely overshadowed by the earlier work of Clement C. Moore, whose “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” (which most of us know by the first line, “Twas the night before Christmas”) gave us the more lasting vision of a chubby, jolly Santa Claus. American artists like Thomas Nast and Norman Rockwell played with this newer representation as well and helped develop our iconic Santa Claus. That picture cemented its place in American popular culture with the 1931 Coca Cola ads, where artist Haddon Sundblom permanently ensconced the fat, bearded man in a red suit as the singular Santa.
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