Christmas (Untitled), 1939, oil on canvas, 33 x 42 inches, signed and dated lower left
About the Painting
“You ain’t gonna find no better tree than this here tree.” Mother Parker and Old Man Parker (Ralphie’s Mom and Dad) can barely contain their laughter when they hear this poorly constructed, but heartfelt and enthusiastic sales pitch, in the middle of one of funniest moments of the classic 1983 film, A Christmas Story, which is set in 1939, the year Stella Drabkin painted Christmas (Untitled). Unlike the popular film, however, Stella Drabkin’s real 1939 Christmas tree shoppers are not White Midwesterners; rather, they are a Black family from the Mid-Atlantic. Drabkin is one of the rare White Depression Era artists who routinely depicted Black subjects, in addition to the many immigrant neighborhoods in and around her adopted home of Philadelphia. At her best, Drabkin captures authentic, often charming, slices of life in these communities and populates her pictures with characters who directly confront us, like the little boy in the right portion of the composition. (And, yes, I did notice he is bundled up head to toe, like Ralphie’s little brother, Randy.) In an April 6, 1952, review of Drabkin’s solo retrospective at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Gertrude Benson noted, “In her early work Mrs. Drabkin worked from experiences with reality to design conscious portraits and genre scenes . . . [which] anticipate[d] the poetic sensibilities that distinguish her more recent canvases.” Benson further described Drabkin as “an imaginative, feelingful artist.” Christmas (Untitled) is one of Drabkin’s best works from the 1930s, as we see the traits that Benson praised on full display.
About the Artist
Stella Drabkin was a Philadelphia-based artist who worked in a variety of media throughout her long career. During the 1930s and 1940s, Drabkin worked in the American Scene tradition of depicting the urban working class. Later, as her practice shifted more towards printmaking and mosaic in the 1950s and 1960s, Drabkin’s work became more abstract and less focused on depicting her lived experience. Drabkin was a technical innovator who pioneered multi-type prints using glass and plastic matrices which often included intaglio and relief methods. Born in New York, Drabkin studied at the National Academy of Design, Philadelphia Sketch Club and with Earl Horter. After initially working as a commercial artist in New York, Drabkin relocated to Philadelphia in the early 1930s. Soon after arriving, she won first prize in the Gimbel competition in 1933. Drabkin also was awarded prizes by the American Color Print Society in 1944, the Philadelphia Print Club in 1955 and 1967, and the New Jersey State Museum (purchase prize) in 1967. She exhibited extensively, including at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Artists for Victory Exhibition), Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Society of Independents, Smithsonian Institution, National Academy of Design, the American Color Print Society, the Philadelphia Jewish Artists, the Pyramid Club, the Philadelphia Graphic Sketch Club, and the Philadelphia Art Alliance. Drabkin had one woman shows at Carlen Gallery and Everyman Gallery, both in Philadelphia, as well as at the Philadelphia Art Alliance, and a retrospective of her work from 1929 through 1952 was held at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (Philadelphia Artist’s Gallery). Drabkin served in art leadership roles, including as Chair of the Print Committee of the Art Alliance of Philadelphia and Secretary of the Artist’s Equity Association. She also served on juries for exhibitions of the Sketch Club and was a member of the American Graphic Artists. After her death, the Philadelphia Art Alliance established a prize in her honor. Her works are in the permanent collections of the National Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in addition to other institutions. She is listed in Who was Who in American Art and other standard references.