Archives of American Art

Valentine's Shmalentine's

Buy war bonds, 194-, Charles Green Shaw, artist. Charles Green Shaw papers, 1874-1979, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Buy war bonds, 194-, Charles Green Shaw, artist. Charles Green Shaw papers, 1874-1979, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

In my experience, it’s a thin line between love and hate when Valentine’s Day rolls around. Some people can't get enough of roses, chocolates, and romance, while others can’t stop grumbling about how it’s just a stupid holiday invented by the greeting card companies. As someone who prefers to refer to February 14th as “Shmalentine’s Day,” you can guess which camp I fall into.

Valentine handmade by Charles Greene Shaw
Buy war bonds, 194-. Charles Green Shaw papers, 1686, 1833-1979, bulk, 1909-1974. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

I am thinking that Charles Green Shaw, the abstract artist and writer, might be with me on this one. In any case, he certainly wasn’t sentimental about traditional Valentine’s Day imagery. In a series of collages he created exhorting Americans to “buy war bonds,” he used all the typical fourth–grade elements of Valentine-making (doilies and shiny red heart stickers) and manages to turn them into something militaristic. In one collage, the central image is a big red heart, pierced not by Cupid’s arrow, but by an atomic missile. In another, many little hearts are attached to tiny doilies making them look like soldiers parachuting out of danger.

Certificate for Aline Saarinen made by Eero Saarinen
Illustrated card from Eero Saarinen to Aline Saarinen, ca. 1955. Aline and Eero Saarinen papers, 1906-1977. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

On the other hand, we have Eero Saarinen, the Finnish-American architect known for his clean modern designs of the St. Louis Gateway Arch, and the main Dulles International Airport terminal. Though his designs in steel and concrete might suggest otherwise, judging from this sweet “certificate” he made for his second wife Aline, he was a big softie. Maybe he got her a teddy bear and ten dozen roses every Valentine’s Day?

Illustrated valentine sent to Grace Mott Johnson by Andrew Dasburg
Andrew Dasburg valentine to Grace Mott Johnson, ca. 1907. Andrew Dasburg and Grace Mott Johnson papers, 1833-1980, bulk, 1900-1980. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

One last entry for the pro-Valentine’s camp would be Andrew Michael Dasburg, the modernist painter. Early in his courtship with the sculptor Grace Mott Johnson, he sent her this illustrated note asking that eternal question: “Won’t you be my Valentine?” He addresses her with the pet name “little calf,” and though there are probably not too many women who would be flattered to be compared to a cow, she seems to have found it endearing—after all, they were married two years later.

Whether it’s Valentine’s or Shmalentine’s to you, I wish you a happy one!

The exhibition A Thousand Kisses: Love Letters from the Archives of American Art was on view at the Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery from January 25 – June 8, 2008. The book With Love: Artists' Letters and Illustrated Notes by Liza Kirwin and Joan Lord was published the same year.

This post was originally published on the Archives of American Art Blog.

Bettina Smith is a former digital projects librarian at the Archives of American Art.

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