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Sallman, Warner - VM - Rondall Reynoso

Warner Sallman: Head of Christ

Masculin or Feminine?

by Rondall Reynoso

Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ is an icon of American religious art. Painted in 1941 the image was continuously reproduced throughout World War II and the YMCA and Salvation Army handed out the image to soldiers during the war. It has become the most reproduced image of Christ with over 500 million reproductions.

This leads to two key questions. First, why did Sallman choose to depict Jesus in the way he did? Second, what accounts for the tremendous popularity of the image? These are difficult and complicated questions, but I will briefly outline some of the major contributing factors.

One of the main reasons for Sallman depicting Jesus in this way is primarily religious, not artistic. Early 20th-century American evangelicalism experienced many trials. From the late 19th through early 20th century the Modernist-Fundamentalist (Liberal-Evangelical to use current terminology) controversy took place, where the influences of Darwinian evolution and Higher Criticism wreaked havoc on the religious life of conservatives. This controversy created a climate where much of the religious influence of modernism came under scrutiny. This extended to the more effeminate depictions of Jesus common to the Victorian era.

Sallman claimed to have been encouraged by a Moody Bible Institute (Chicago, IL) teacher around the time of World War I to stay an artist. The teacher encouraged Sallman to one day paint an image of Christ saying, “I hope someday you give us your conception of Christ. Most of the pictures I have seen are too effeminate. I hope you’ll picture a virile, manly Christ.” This sort of thinking has lasted many years. The art historian Hans Rookmaaker wrote in his 1970 book Modern Art and the Death of Culture:

Could it be that the false ideas that many people, non-Christians as well as Christians, have of Christ as a sentimental, rather effeminate man, soft and ‘loving’ never really of this world, are the result of the preaching inherent in the pictures given to children or hanging on the wall? Their theology, their message, is not that of the Bible but of nineteenth century liberalism.

The theologically conservative Sallman sought to create a “virile, manly Christ” as his Bible teacher had suggested. But he did not do so without art historical awareness and the savvy he had learned during his years as a commercial artist. Most art historians agree that Sallman used the Leon Lhermitte painting The Friend of the Humble/Supper at Emmaus (1892) as the source for his Head of Christ. However, the choice to close in on the head of Christ in a three-quarter view seems thoughtful, not accidental. Further, Sallman’s Christ is not painted in a room but with an ethereal space around him that is reminiscent of a photography studio setting. As a result, Sallman’s Jesus is a contemporary figure. His facial structure and skin tone hint at a northern European heritage, his features are masculine yet gentle, and his pose is much like the celebrity face shots common within popular culture at that time.

Clark Gable

The great popularity of Sallman’s Head of Christ, though, may lie in the fact that the painting is sufficiently open to interpretation. The depiction of Christ is both strong and gentle, allowing the viewer to read into the image the facets of Jesus the viewer finds most compelling. The format, which hinted at celebrity, made Sallman’s painting the original Jesus Christ Super Star. Maybe most importantly, Sallman’s Christ seems very personal. His masculinity pushes toward emotional strength, but there is tenderness in his look that invites the viewer to identify with him. As important as any of these, the strong ties to commercialization made Sallman’s Head of Christ readily reproduced and available to people at a very reasonable price.

Evangelicals today have grown up in a culture where the Sallman image is the most recognized image of Christ. This ubiquitous image has shaped the perception of Christ in untold ways. For many evangelicals this image has helped to associate an Anglo Christ with a largely white evangelical movement. This image also resonates well with the evangelical concept of a personal savior. Sallman’s Christ does not evoke the feeling of Christ as king but rather Christ as a friend.

Ironically while the Head of Christ was an imminently contemporary piece in 1941, it also generated a sort of nostalgia hearkening back to a simpler more religious and more pious time. Many long for the time when the United States was a Christian nation. They reminisce about the days when personal devotion and public piety lived in harmony. There is little doubt that this cultural memory is highly idealized, but it is powerful. The same may be said of the Head of Christ. Jesus was not a blue-eyed northern European. His life was filled with trial and pain. But, in Sallman’s painting, we see only Christ’s peace.

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Warner Sallman: Head of Christ, 1941, print reproduction on cardboard, 50 x 40 cm.

Leon Lhermitte: The Friend of the Humble (Supper at Emmaus) 1892, oil on canvas, 61 1/4″ x 87 3/4″, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA, USA.

Taken over with permission from Faith on View, April 28, 2021, Five Evangelical Christs

Warner Elias Sallman (1892-1968) was an American painter from Chicago best known for his works of Christian religious imagery. He also worked in commercial advertising, as well as in freelance illustration. In 1994, The New York Times wrote that he was likely to be voted the "best-known artist of the century." Sallman was the eldest of three children born to Elias Sallman and Christiane Larson Sallman who were immigrants from Finland and Sweden. He trained by apprenticing in local studios while attending the Chicago Art Institute at night. Sallman was a lifelong member of the Swedish Evangelical Mission Covenant of America (which was later renamed the Evangelical Covenant Church. More info at the Warner Sallman Collection at Anderson University, Anderson, IN, USA, see: https://anderson.edu/galleries/warner-sallman

Rondall Reynoso is an American artist, scholar, and speaker. He is currently an Assistant Professor at Lee University in Cleveland, TN. He holds an MFA in Painting and an MS in Art History from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY and is completing a Ph.D. in Art History and Aesthetics from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA, USA.

ArtWay Visual Meditation February 20, 2022