American Artists Group Holiday Cards and Prints

Pictured above are several examples of holiday cards with artwork by Arnold Rönnebeck that were created and sold during the mid-1930s and early 1940s through the American Artists Group (“AAG”). The AAG was a greeting card company founded by Sam Golden in New York in 1934. Their goal was to popularize American art and artists through the reproduction of their work on greeting cards. During this period, artists were struggling along with everyone else. People did not have money to spend on a “luxury” such as art. They could, however, access contemporary American art in an affordable manner through the purchase of AAG’s greeting cards. The card prices ranged from 5 cents to 25 cents each and the customer could order them blank on the inside or with a standard greeting such as “Christmas Greetings and Best Wishes for the New Year”.

Carl Zigrosser, director of the Weyhe Gallery in New York between 1919 and 1940 wanted to take it one step further. During the Depression, in order to help mitigate the loss of sales and income for his roster of artists, Mr. Zigrosser came up with a solution: To publish low price prints in large quantities. Between 1936 and 1938, Weyhe Gallery partnered with AAG to exhibit, distribute and sell and distribute affordable prints alongside the greeting cards. These prints were produced in significantly larger editions of 2000. They were not signed and each sold for a uniform price of $2.75 each, no matter the artist or image. The prints were made by renowned printer, George C. Miller. Each print came with a hinged window mat with the title of the print and a facsimile of the artist’s signature on the front of the mat. On the reverse of the mat, there was a label identifying the title, artist and authenticity (photo above of the label from Rönnebeck’s Yacht Race). As a price reference, in Weyhe Gallery’s 1936 Fine Print catalog, Rönnebeck’s signed limited edition prints were priced at $15-$25 each. In September 1936, Weyhe Gallery hosted the first exhibition of the AAG group that included, besides Arnold Rönnebeck, artists such as Paul Cadmus, Howard Cook, Miguel Covarrubias, Mabel Dwight, Wanda Gag, Rockwell Kent, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Louis Lozowick, John Marin, Diego Rivera, amongst many others.

In a KOA radio interview at American Art Week in Denver, Colorado on October 31, 1937, Rönnebeck was asked about how art and artists could be encouraged. He replied, in part, “Those with less means should be told that they can now buy original prints by the best known American artists at a nominal cost. By and by they will come to see how exciting it is to build up a little collection that can be changed around, a collection that they can enjoy instead of saying as I have often heard, ‘I have an old reproduction of a fine oil in my living, but of course I never look at it’. They should look at it! Some of the greatest collections in this country started very humbly because somebody wanted to look at something”.

While the association between AAG and Weyhe Gallery only lasted from 1936 to 1938, Rönnebeck’s work continued to be featured on AAG cards until at least the holiday season of 1940. During this period, Rönnebeck sold several images on greeting cards and affordable prints, some possibly made specifically for AAG and others from work he had created in the 1920s and early 1930s. Known titles sold through AAG included Adeste Fideles, Red Rock Lake, Smooth Sailing aka Grand Lake, Yacht Race, Pageant of Lights aka Manhattan, Adoration and Madonna and Child. There could be more. There is an additional sailing image on a card that I have only seen on this card, so that may have been created solely for AAG. It is pictured above and it was a holiday card for Philip and Jean Roosevelt in 1935 or 1936. Philip Roosevelt was an avid sailor and a first cousin once removed from Teddy Roosevelt. I’ve only seen a small selection of the correspondence between AAG and Arnold Rönnebeck, but I was impressed to see that in the 1938 holiday season, he sold 7480 cards of a “new” 1938 unknown image, 962 of Smooth Sailing and 270 of another unknown image. In 1940, two of Rönnebeck cards were very different from his previous offerings. They were made of foil etched with images based on sculptures he had executed years earlier (Adoration and Madonna & Child, see photos above). These sold for 25 cents each.

Also shown above is Rönnebeck’s 1939 Xmas card list.

All of the above pictured Rönnebeck AAG greeting card originals and 1939 list are in the Arnold Rönnebeck and Louise Emerson Ronnebeck Collection at the Archives of American Art (“AAA”), in Washington, DC. The AAA also holds the archives of the American Artists Group. They have an almost complete set of all of the cards they produced during their first season, in 1935. The collection isn’t digitized, but it would certainly be fun to browse through once we can travel again.