Warner Sallman’s Famous Head of Christ

You may not recognize his name off the cuff, but you’ve probably seen
his work. Warner Sallman was the best-known Christian artist of the
early twentieth century. Almost everyone has seen a reproduction of his
Head of Christ. The yellow-brown picture with long flowing hair
was an icon of the forties and fifties.

Born on this day, April 30, 1892, Sallman
showed early artistic talent. His Swedish-born parents did all they
could to develop his abilities. Going to New York City to make his
living, he was thwarted when his trunk came up missing. Without the
portfolio samples in it, no studio would accept him. He prepared to
leave New York, but made one last check at the railroad station,
insisting on seeing the storage area. His trunk was discovered far from

Sallman was a Christian who had been converted at sixteen during
evangelistic services in Chicago. “My burden of sin and guilt was
removed and I shall never forget the thrilling joy of that moment of
experiencing God’s redeeming grace. Since that time my life has been
based on that experience, and has been directed toward serving God in
every way.” He married a Christian girl, too–Ruth Anderson–but a
year later he was told that he had just three months to live. His wife’s
faith was equal to the test; she said, “Let us pray about it and
let the Lord have His way in the matter.” In time he fully
recovered from tuberculosis.

Eventually he achieved success as a professional illustrator. One day
Sallman urgently needed to get a cover done for the February, 1924 issue
of the religious magazine Covenant Companion. He wanted to do a
face of Christ, but wasn’t satisfied with his ideas. Hovering in the
back of his mind was a statement by E. O. Sellers, the night director of
Moody Bible Institute, “…make Him a real man. Make Him rugged,
not effeminate. Make Him strong and masculine, not weak, so people will
see in his face He slept under the stars, drove the money changers out
of the temple, and faced Calvary in triumph.” No small task! Little
wonder Sallman was unable to find precisely the right idea at first.

With his deadline looming, he saw a vision early one morning of the
face he must draw. He went up to his studio and made a sketch. Years
later he converted that sketch to a painting–the best-known
representation of Christ done in the twentieth century.

Sallman would do much other religious art–he was the artist for New
Tribes mission, for example. But it was the Head people wanted. He
sketched it over and over–more than 500 times–in public talks. He
would make the sketch and invite people to meet the Christ he tried to
portray. He made many other paintings about Christ, including the
well-known Jesus, Our Pilot and Christ Knocking at Heart’s
(in which the light radiates from Christ and reflects off the
house so that it forms the image of a heart).

Highbrow critics scoffed at the works. To them it was mere kitsch.
But when one looks at the paintings that they approved, one cannot help
but feel that the sensibility of the masses, while not perfect, was more
satisfactory than the verdict of the smug art world.
With changing
times, Sallman’s ideal of Christ fell into disfavor. Minorities reject
it because it makes Jesus too white. From the perspective of the
twenty-first century it is safe to say that what appeared masculine to
his contemporaries seems effeminate today. One can also take exception
with his Head of Christ on the grounds that it makes Jesus too
beautiful. The Bible says there was nothing comely in his appearance to
make him desirable.


  1. Lundboom, Jack R. Master Painter; Warner E. Sallman.
    Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1999.
  2. Morgan, David. Icons of American Protestantism; the art of
    Warner Sallman.
    New Haven: Yale University, 1996.

Last updated April, 2007.

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