It is a painting we have all seen. As a matter of fact, The New York Times said it was probably the most recognized American paintings of the 20th Century. It has been seen on calenders, bookmarks, hand fans, notebooks and other things given away by funeral homes and churches. It has even been features on greeting cards, T-shirts, lamps, coins, stamps and, oddly enough, a toilet seat cover (Sold through a mail order company). You probably didn't know it had a name nor did you know the name of the man who painted it, but in the back of your mind it was "That-picture-of-Jesus-you-always-see."
The painting is called The Head of Christ and it was painted by a commercial artist named Warner Sallman in 1940. Sallman originally created a charcoal version in the 1920s which he called Son of Man. He made the first oil version in 1935. He was asked to create another version in 1940, which attracted the attention of the owners of Gospel Trumpet Publishing. They were so impressed, they created a company just to sell Sallman's other paintings of Jesus Christ. The Head of Christ became popular immediately. Smaller versions were sent with American soldiers in World War II. Through this and his other paintings such as Christ At Heart's Door (A very symbolic painting showing Jesus in front of a house, knocking on a door without a knob or latch), Sallman created the modern image of Jesus Christ much the way artist Haddon Sundblom's Coca Cola ads created the modern image of Santa Claus. Sallman's Head of Christ portrait and Da Vinci's The Last Supper are two of the most famous paintings of Jesus Christ.
One theory on the popularity of Sallman's Head of Christ was that it looks like a yearbook photo or a personal portrait from a coin-operated photo booth. From the very beginning, there were critics who felt that Sallman's Jesus was not "manly" enough. One person called Sallman's Jesus "sissified." Later, some noticed that the painting looked like the Breck girl ads. In the 60s, some conservatives began to despise Sallman's Jesus Christ, because of his shoulder length hair and beard was similar to that of many male members of the counter culture (After all, he is the Prince of Peace). Others have noted that Sallman's Jesus Christ is too white, middle American looking, especially noted is Sallman giving Jesus blue eyes.
As I mentioned before, I saw this picture for years, never giving its origins much thought until I viewed a TV documentary, narrated by Hal Holbrook, about the painting and Sallman a few years ago on TV. Unfortunately, I could not find it on You Tube, but I did find this old film short. It features Warner Sallman creating a charcoal in front of a church while a choir sings (Okay, there may have been some editing). There is also a little inspirational story here, similar to the Union Pacific/Jam Handy productions that turned up on Mystery Science Theater 3000 (Look for Hope Summers, who played Aunt Bea's rival Clara on The Andy Griffith Show).