Valentine's, Shmalentine's

By Bettina Smith
February 10, 2011

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 14 as “Shmalentine’s Day,” you can guess which camp I fall into.

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

Card from Eero Saarinen to Aline Saarinen
Illustrated card from Eero Saarinen to Aline Saarinen, ca. 1955. Aline and Eero Saarinen papers, 1906-1977, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Valentine given to Grace Mott Johnson
Andrew Dasburg valentine to Grace Mott Johnson, ca. 1907. Andrew Dasburg and Grace Mott Johnson papers, 1833-1980, 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?

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!

Bettina Smith is a contract cataloger at the Archives of American Art as well as a self-confessed curmudgeon.

To see more amorous and affectionate notes from artists in the Archives of American Art’s collections, check out our online exhibition A Thousand Kisses: Love Letters from the Archives of American Art.


Haha, I like the parachute war bonds picture.
About the subject, I think I'm in between both camps, it's a nice idea but somewhat over-commercialized...

I think Valentine's was certainly fun for everyone in teenage years and 20s, as love was all new. Now, it's a little bit like other holidays, but I find the Valentine's note from 1907 intriguing - like peering into someone's diary of events!

Hey it just happens once in a year! it won't hurt if you just give it a try! Give love and be loved in return!

I've never been a big fan of Vday - nice to see some good artists express my feelings of disdain too. I love the <3 war bonds series.

I like andrew darsburg letter with the yes &amp; no, so cute :)
They give me some more ideas on what to do for the next valentine ;)

As many other holidays, St. Valentines is used by the consumerist system we live in. It would be good reading again: To have or to be- E.Fromm. A classic that has a lot to do with these paintings!

It may have become commercialised but as my husband proposed to me on Valentine's Day, I can't let it go without a little schmaltz.

beautiful post! it might be a little plastic but I like Valentine's day.

Valentine doesn't seem to really consume me that much but i like the cards! Schmalentine is a new outlook to Valentine-something different

Yes, you're definitely right. We need to be different not just the usual boring Valentine's day stuff. Great alternative.

I broke out in a big smile over the hearts parachuting into enemy territory in the war bonds painting.
And another one when I saw the love "certificate" for passage in Iberian Air. Reminds me of a "coupon book" I made for a sweetheart in days gone by...I can't remember if she redeemed all of them...there may be one or two left!