Hallmark is a well-known purveyor of clever greeting cards and sweet telemovies. Its headquarters is a sprawling, subterranean complex on the outskirts of the central business district of Kansas City. Unknown to most, it is home to the five thousand piece Hallmark Art Collection.
The Hallmark Art Collection
The Hallmark Art Collection had its beginnings just after World War II. This was a period in which American companies first patronized fine art. The Collection sprung from the International Hallmark Art Award, started in 1949 by company founder and president Joyce C. Hall. The goals of the Awards were to ‘encourage fine art, bring recognition to artists of today, and broaden public appreciation of arts.’
These lofty ideals had a commercial undercurrent. The first three biennial Hallmark Art Awards had a Christmas theme. The winning entries graced the company’s Christmas cards for the year.
While the Christmas theme was removed for the fourth and fifth Awards, Hallmark remained interested in commercial outcomes. During preparations for the fourth Award, company executive Elwood Whitney advised Joyce Hall that the ‘objective should be in attempting a higher recovery of convertible material to greeting cards and/or prints suitable for framing.’
A ‘Representational’ Award
The Hallmark Awards were ostensibly free from artistic bias. Introducing a 1962 retrospective of the Art Award’s entries at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London, Alfred Frankfurter, Editor of Art News, wrote, ‘Obviously nobody here proclaimed in advance that there were to be strictures against, or policies in favor of abstract or representational paintings.’
Under the terms of the Award, however, all of the entries from the third competition onwards were bought by Hallmark and retained to found the Hallmark Collection. Hallmark had a vested interest in controlling the competition’s entries.
Internal memos and letters from the fourth competition in 1957 show that Joyce Hall and other company executives personally cleared the names of the invited artists. The company also instructed the competition’s organizer, Vladimir Visson of Wildenstein Galleries in New York, that no more than thirty percent of the paintings in the show were to be ‘non-representational.’
In the end, two famous American artists at the end of their careers took first and second prize in 1957. The first prize of $2,000 went to Edward Hopper for his watercolor, ‘California Hills’ (1957), which he started during his residency at the Huntington Hartford Foundation in Pacific Palisades.
Hopper completed the picture in Cape Cod later that year, when he inserted the final version of the sky, just as he would do with Santa Barbara’s ‘November, Washington Square’ two years later. Second prize in 1957 went to the Precisionist painter Charles Sheeler, for a tempera on board titled ‘Two Against the White’.
‘California Hills’ is laid out for me in the Collection’s viewing area, deep within the maze of hallways which make up the company’s headquarters. Melissa Rountree, Curator of the Hallmark Fine Art Collection, comments that while ‘California Hills’ is a beautiful picture, it’s not a ‘signature Hopper…Was it chosen because it was maybe more palatable for a greeting card? I don’t know.’
‘California Hills’ did, in fact, end up on a Christmas card. In a tongue-in-cheek move, Edward and Jo Hopper sent a copy of this card to John Clancy at the Rehn Galleries for Christmas that year, celebrating what Edward may have thought to be a relatively undeserved prize.
The picture is wildly luscious, in the way that only California winters can be. A profusion of overgrown bushes is backdropped by the corrugated foothills of southern California. In a sly nod to the Hallmark Award’s origins, the corner of the artist’s studio depicted on the left is bright red and green.
‘California Hills’ seems to have caught Hopper on a good day…perhaps too good.
‘California Hills’ seems to have caught Hopper on a good day, perhaps too good. The sun is so bright that you don’t want to wander down the path and into the wilderness, as is usually the case with a Hopper landscape. Instead, the studio beckons for a cup of tea and a nap. Perhaps you’ll return outside when the evening sun mutes the supple colors and the usual Hopper moodiness has had a chance to develop.
The End of the Hallmark Award
Proscriptions on abstract art were dropped for the fifth Hallmark Award. Sensibilities within the company were duly shocked by abstract painters like Elaine de Kooning and the award was subsequently terminated. As Rountree says, ‘The fifth one was very abstract. We think it was probably just a little too much for our Chairman to handle. It had strayed a long way from the Christmas theme.’
‘The fifth one was very abstract and we think it was probably just a little too much for our Chairman to handle.’
The Hallmark Art Collection was revived separately from the Award in 1980. It now boasts a well thought-out, modern American print collection that graces the long hallways of Hallmark’s headquarters. Commercial considerations are now forbidden. As Alfred Frankfurter presaged in 1962, Hallmark’s collection today represents an ‘essential expression of that obligation toward creative painters who literally invent the styles which later filter down into popular art.’
Rountree agrees that the collection acts as a creative spark for Hallmark’s designers. She described to me one Art Selection Committee meeting, attended by Hall family members and senior executives, in which she presented a Jeff Koons print for their approval.
‘We’ve got three hundred people upstairs who can draw a better vase of flowers than this.’
‘He does these big vases of flowers,’ she told me, sketching out the vase with her hands. ‘It’s real squiggly, the color’s not that pleasing. One of the people on the committee is a former vice-president of design and she’s sitting there saying, “We’ve got three hundred people upstairs who can draw a better vase of flowers than this.” It’s where design and illustration collide with art.’
Hopper was an illustrator for popular magazines and publications in the years before his belated artistic recognition in 1923-24, at the age of forty-one. Hopper got little more than monetary reward from this work. While technically proficient, it was constrained.
‘Illustration really didn’t interest me,’ Hopper said in an interview. ‘I was forced into it by an effort to make some money, that’s all. I really had no interest in it. I tried to force myself to have an interest in it but it wasn’t very real.’
Hopper’s sweet illustrations of children playing and couples enjoying a night out make for enjoyable viewing but for him they were just a well-drawn vase of flowers, not the flowers he wanted to show.
What other artists have been forced to make art they didn’t want to? Is it a necessary step on the path to success?