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American Originals: Norman Rockwell and Coca-Cola

By:  Ted Ryan May 23, 2013
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Missing Rockwells

This week, in the Pop Culture gallery at the World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta, we opened an exhibit of Norman Rockwell Coca-Cola advertising art and vintage artifacts. The exhibit features 10 paintings and is the biggest grouping of Coca-Cola Norman Rockwell art ever collected in one exhibit. 

Rockwell created six paintings that were ultimately used in finished Coca-Cola ads. The company has three of those paintings and, while two have been on display at the World of Coca-Cola since the attraction opened, the three paintings will be displayed together for the first time.  

The Missing Rockwells

Why does The Coca-Cola Company only have three of the six paintings that were used as ads? At the time, illustrators, even ones as well-known as Rockwell, were considered just that – and not artists. Their work was not worth saving, and many of the pieces were left at the printers or agencies and never returned to the company. In fact, all three pieces of Coca-Cola Norman Rockwell art that were used in finished ads were found and acquired in the last 25 years.

We call the other three the “Missing Rockwells,” and they have even been highlighted on Antiques Roadshow. We are still searching for the these three Rockwell works, which were created for Coca-Cola in the late 20s and early 30s. Two were used as billboards, and one was a calendar – but the original art is still missing. If you think you might know where one of the paintings is, please contact us.

The Unwanted Rockwells

The highlight of the exhibit is a series of seven additional paintings that were created and rejected as proposed Coca-Cola ads or used as study sketches for a finished ad. The Coca-Cola Company obviously held Rockwell in high esteem; he was one of the few artists we let sign his works and have his signature included in print ads. So there clearly were strong reasons for rejecting any work Rockwell created for Coca-Cola. These items have been in the hands of private collectors and most have never been on display before. 

The most interesting of the rejected pieces is Rockwell’s 1935 image of Santa Claus holding a Coca-Cola fountain glass. It includes a handwritten poem which may have been a suggestion for the ad copy itself. The company clearly opted to continue its relationship with artist Haddon Sundblom, who had begun creating the modern image of Santa Claus in 1931. Whether Rockwell was commissioned to paint the Santa image – and why – is still a mystery.

Over the next several months, I will feature each one of the “Unwanted Rockwell” ad concepts in detail on our Coca-Cola Conversations blog. These posts will create a virtual exhibit for those who cannot travel to Atlanta to visit the World of Coca-Cola and see the exhibit in person.  The first art featured is “50 Years Young.”