Santa Delivers Smiles to Classic Paintings at Butler

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Winslow Homer’s “Snap the Whip” is the signature painting of the Butler Institute of American Art and the face of the museum.

But you’ve never seen it like this.

“Snap the Whip” is just one of 35 masterworks that get a Santa Claus intervention in an exhibition at the Butler.

“Ed Wheeler: Santa Classics” opened Dec. 12 in the MacIntosh Gallery and runs through Feb. 7. Each of the paintings by photographer-digital artist Wheeler includes a Santa Claus inserted in the style of the original artist. The exhibit comprises works inspired by Botticelli, Caravaggio, Degas, Monet, Manet, Rembrandt, Hopper, Vermeer and other greats.

“Snap the Whip” might be the newest piece in the exhibition. The Butler commissioned Wheeler to do it in advance.

“I am always looking at paintings [for the Santa series]. And ‘Snap the Whip’ has been on my list for years,” Wheeler said. “I have already done several other Homers. He is one of my favorites.”

Because of the pandemic, The Butler was forced to cancel its annual American Holiday arts and crafts show and sale, a popular highlight of every year.

In its absence, the Wheeler exhibition will help to bring a smile and some seasonal joy to Butler visitors.

“I can’t begin to tell you how disappointed everyone is at the canceling of the annual holiday show,” said Louis Zona, executive director and curator of The Butler. “It was how our community kicked off the Christmas season for nearly 50 years.”

To fill in the vacuum left by the cancellation, Zona wanted a family-oriented exhibition with a fun Christmas theme. Wheeler’s “Santa Classics” seemed to be a perfect fit.

And for more than one reason.

“Not only is it humorous and fun. But it is educational as well,” Zona said. “It’s a wonderful primer on art history and covers centuries of Western art.”

Zona praised Wheeler’s ability to humorously re-create iconic art, calling it “nothing short of remarkable.”

The main goal of every “Santa Classics” painting is “to put a smile on your face for the holidays,” Wheeler said. “This year, we deserve more of a smile whenever possible.”

This series of photos depicts the key steps in how photographer-artist Ed Wheeler uses himself to create one of his “Santa Classics” pieces, based on Caravaggio’s 1601 masterpiece “Supper at Emmaus.”

The Philadelphia-based artist made his first Santa insertion seven years ago as part of a promotional card. The idea was an instant hit and Wheeler knew he was on to something.

“In 2013, I was standing in front of the ‘Washington Crossing the Delaware’ painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if that was Santa?’ ”

Wheeler had long been in the habit of sending an annual Christmas mailer to his clients that featured himself in a Santa suit doing something like driving a sports car.

So, using himself as a model dressed as Santa once again, he struck the pose of George Washington and carefully re-created “Crossing the Delaware” with the Christmassy alteration.

“I used it in my mailer that year and got a great response,” Wheeler said. “The next year, I did the same with [a painting in] the Philadelphia Museum of Art. They made it into a series and sold it in their gift shop.”

Wheeler’s creations went viral after The Huffington Post and other online media picked up the story. “Millions around the world were seeing it,” he said. “And that was the start of things.”

Wheeler has since built up an inventory of famous paintings with a Santa. The exhibition has been shown in cities around the world.

“Santa Claus is universal,” he said. “And this art is universal.”

Combining the two has led to Wheeler’s work being displayed everywhere from Moscow to Hong Kong to Rome to Jakarta, Indonesia.

Wheeler makes his creations on a computer, starting with a careful analysis of the original.

“I study them for nuances. Then I take my notes about the position and angles of light on the character [that will be substituted with Santa]. And then we create that in the photo shoot,” he said.

The hardest thing is usually getting himself in the exact physical position of the subject. Wheeler has discovered that artists “lie like crazy. People can’t bend like [they are sometimes depicted]. Sometimes I have to take six pictures of myself and put them all together because I could never have made my body do all of that at one time.” After inserting the Santa into the masterwork, Wheeler then paints it to match the brushstrokes and tonal qualities of the original.

Wheeler has also created some lenticular “Santa Classics” paintings that change when viewed from different angles. As the viewer walks past these, he sees the original, then the Santa Claus insertion, and then the original again.

About five or six lenticular paintings will be included in the exhibition at The Butler.

Pictured: Santa Claus joins in the fun in photo-digital artist Ed Wheeler’s version of Winslow Homer’s “Snap the Whip.”