Several years ago the Smithsonian Institution declared the Christmas card series created by Robert W. Woodruff (the former president of The Coca-Cola Company) and Athos Menaboni (an Italian artist) as our nation’s finest. Each year, from 1941 to 1984, Menaboni painted a bird that could be found at Woodruff’s Georgia plantation or at his ranch in Wyoming. Woodruff then had the original art lithographed on large cards that he and his wife mailed each December to their friends and colleagues wishing them a “Happy Christmas.”
A Passion for Birds
Athos Menaboni didn’t always paint illustrations of birds. Born in Italy in 1895, he studied to be a muralist and came to Atlanta in 1927 to paint in the finest homes and buildings in the city. He was commissioned by the city’s elite to transform their walls with murals that ranged from a dogwood forest to European and Oriental themes. Between commissions, Menaboni returned to a childhood interest — birds — in 1937. He painted a pair of cardinals for his own living room. A dear friend, who was an interior designer, insisted that she be allowed to purchase the painting for a client. That purchase changed the course of Menaboni’s career.
Menaboni’s wife, Sara, wanted to promote her husband’s unique gift by finding galleries and museums in New York City that would mount exhibitions. Sara’s brother and sister-in-law lived in New Jersey, and in 1938, they showed a large portfolio of Menaboni’s bird illustrations to directors of various institutions. Soon, exhibitions of his work were held at the Kennedy Galleries, the American Museum of Natural History and the National Audubon Society.
The Beginning of a Decades-Long Partnership
Robert W. Woodruff led The Coca-Cola Company for 60 years and traveled across the country and other parts of the world. When he needed to rest and get away from the office, Woodruff found solitude at Ichauway Plantation — his south Georgia home away from home where he spent time with his friends and family while hunting quail, raising bird dogs and observing nature.
During an exhibition at the Kennedy Galleries, a Coca-Cola executive noticed a magnificent painting of a covey of doves in a forest of longleaf pine trees. The executive, along with a few others who had been guests at Ichauway, thought of Woodruff and his beloved plantation. The small group purchased the painting, which was called “Doves in Longleaf Pine,” and presented it to “The Boss.” The Woodruffs prominently placed the painting in the living room at Ichauway.
Woodruff soon discovered that Athos Menaboni lived in Atlanta, and Mrs. Woodruff suggested using Menaboni’s painting for their 1941 Christmas card. The couple had always enjoyed designing their own personal Christmas cards, and for several years, they had included a photograph related to life at the plantation. One year the card featured the gate at the main entrance; another year it showed workers making sorghum syrup.
The 1941 Christmas card was so popular that the Woodruffs commissioned Menaboni for another illustration — this time, a painting of quail. It received the same reaction, and the tradition continued each year until 1984 (Woodruff died in March 1985 and Menaboni died in July 1990).
The Artistic Process
Each year Woodruff was directly involved with the cards. Several months before Christmas, Sara and Athos would wait for a call from Joseph W. Jones — Woodruff’s assistant and a vice president at The Coca-Cola Company. When he phoned, he always told Menaboni “the gentleman would like to see you” on a particular date “if possible.” And Menaboni was more than happy to oblige.
On the appointed date, the two men would spend most of the day together. Menaboni would suggest a particular bird early on, and Woodruff would consider his recommendation most of the day, while the two lunched and Woodruff handled company business. Throughout the day, the men discussed which bird should be selected for the next card. By late afternoon, Woodruff made the final decision, which was usually the bird Menaboni first proposed.
Woodruff was interested in every detail of the paintings. He wanted the painting to be beautiful, but he also wanted it to be accurate in terms of the bird and its habitat. He insisted that the bird winter at, breed at or migrate through Ichauway Plantation (two birds used on the Christmas cards were found at Woodruff’s TE Ranch in Wyoming). At times, Woodruff did research and suggested the distinctive foliage that should be used with a certain type of bird.
In 1948 the painting used to illustrate the card was Georgia’s State Bird and Flower — the Brown Thrasher and Cherokee Rose. When the painting was delivered to Woodruff, he sent a letter to Menaboni regarding its accuracy. He had several questions about the work, including: Is this a proper subject to use for a Christmas card? Is the flower white rather than pink? Has Menaboni ever seen a nest in this type of rose bush? After Menaboni responded in the affirmative to each question, Woodruff approved the painting for the Christmas card.
Menaboni’s Most Famous Work
A few years later, in 1950, this same Menaboni painting became the artist’s most publicized piece. Woodruff paid for large lithographs to be produced, and through the Atlanta Historical Society (now the Atlanta History Center), sent a copy to every public school and library in Georgia. The painting has been used for decades in the State of Georgia’s official publications, and the lithographs were recently still available to the public from the Office of the Secretary of State. Woodruff gave the original to Governor and Mrs. Herman Talmadge, and it was placed in the Governor’s Mansion. In 2007 the image was re-created on a Christmas tree ornament that raised money for the State Capitol’s museum.
A Dedicated Supporter
Woodruff quickly became the greatest and most dedicated patron of Athos Menaboni. He commissioned Menaboni to create countless bird paintings that he used as gifts for his friends, family and business associates. On one occasion, Woodruff asked Menaboni to paint a large map of Ichauway Plantation. After viewing Woodruff’s map, the neighbors wanted their own maps of their property.
In addition, Menaboni did at least two assignments for The Coca-Cola Company. One, in 1951, was a “Play Refreshed” poster that illustrated a Coca-Cola bottle, sporting equipment and several game birds. In 1959, local bottlers across the country distributed a calendar that featured Menaboni’s birds and included an ad for Menaboni china plates, which were made to raise money for Atlanta’s Cerebral Palsy School Clinic (now known as The Frazer Center).
Menaboni’s Lost Works
Since 2007, Kennesaw State University (KSU), in Kennesaw, Georgia, has been collecting the works of Menaboni. The school now boasts a gallery for Menaboni exhibitions, and was sponsored by a gift from the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation because of the long relationship and deep respect shared between Woodruff and Menaboni. The largest archival collection is housed at the Troup County Archives in LaGrange, Georgia. The Archives continues to search for four missing Christmas cards to complete their collection: 1947, 1948, 1950 and 1951.
Sources: Kennesaw State University Archives and Emory University Special Collections; and conversations with Athos Menaboni, Joseph Jones, June Boykin Tindall, Nell Hodgson Watt and James Williams
ROBERT WOODRUFF / ATHOS MENABONI CHRISTMAS CARD SERIES
1941 Doves in Longleaf Pine
1942 Bobwhite Quail
1943 Cardinals in Magnolia Hammock
1944 Red-winged Blackbirds
1945 Wild Turkey
1946 Little Blue Heron
1947 Mocking Birds in Holly
1948 Brown Thrasher and Cherokee Rose
1949 Snowy Egret
1950 Purple Gallinule
1951 Purple Martins
1952 Mountain Bluebirds in Quaking Aspen
1953 Bluebirds in Dogwood
1954 Wood Duck
1955 Ruby-throated Hummingbird
1956 Common Goldfinch
1957 Meadowlark and Indian Paintbrush
1958 Wilson’s Snipe
1959 Towhee in Trillium
1961 Robin and Buckeye
1963 Summer Tanager in Dogwood
1964 Red-headed Woodpecker
1965 Barn Swallow
1966 Painted Bunting
1968 Green-winged Teal
1970 Hooded Warbler
1973 Mourning Doves and Sweet Gum
1974 Bobwhite Quail
1975 Cardinal in Magnolia
1976 Blue Grosbeak in Blue-Berried Dogwood
1977 Baltimore Oriole on Persimmon
1978 Cedar Waxwing in Red Cedar
1979 Rose-breasted Grosbeak in Rhododendron
1980 Scarlet Tanager and Foxgrape
1981 Hooded Merganser and Pickerelweed
1982 Belted Kingfisher
1983 Bufflehead and American Water Lily
1984 Great Blue Heron
Russell Clayton is a retired educator, and a collector of Coca-Cola memorabilia and the works of Athos Menaboni. While in high school and college, Russ was pen pals with Robert W. Woodruff, and became acquainted with Athos Menaboni's paintings. Clayton continues to promote Menaboni exhibitions at Kennesaw State University, and is planning future exhibitions at Berry College in 2013, and the Albany Museum of Art in 2014.
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