The Arts on Stamps of the World — December 24

An Arts Fuse regular feature: the arts on stamps of the world.


By Doug Briscoe

Well, Santa (and his stork Rudolph) has brought a great many presents to parents on Christmas Eve in the form of baby artists. And each little package came with a postage stamp on its forehead. Apart from Adam Mickiewicz (mits-k’YEH-vitch), the brightest of the stars in this philatelic firmament were movie people: director Michael Curtiz, composer Franz Waxman, and actress Ava Gardner.

Adam Mickiewicz (1798 – 26 November 1855) is one of Poland’s greatest poets. He was friendly with Chopin, who set two of Mickiewicz’s poems as songs. Other composers inspired by Mickiewicz’s verse—besides Poles such as Paderewski, Moniuszko, and Grażyna Bacewicz—include Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Glinka, and Carl Loewe (three sets of Polish Ballads in German translation). I show just a sampling of the many stamps in the poet’s honor. As the author of works that reinforced the Polish identity and inspired patriots to overturn the effects of the historic partitions that obliterated Polish statehood, Mickiewicz is regarded as the national poet not only of Poland, but also of Lithuania and Belarus, each of the latter two countries being represented with a single Mickiewicz stamp. (There are also examples from Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Russia, whereon Mickiewicz is paired with Pushkin.) The author of the unfinished verse drama Dziady (Forefathers’ Eve) and the national epic poem Pan Tadeusz (Sir Thaddeus) died in Constantinople, probably of cholera, while rounding up forces to fight against Russia in the Crimean War.

Danish painter Wilhelm Marstrand (24 December 1810 – 25 March 1873), one of the most celebrated Danish artists, studied from the age of 16 with another painter of that caliber, Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg. On a stipend from the Royal Danish Academy he visited Germany and Italy, where he remained four years and to which he would return a number of times. Back in Copenhagen he joined the Academy as a professor and numbered among his students the artists P. S. Krøyer and Michael Ancher. In addition to the inspiration he found in Italian subjects, Marstrand turned to themes from literature and the stage, in particular portraying characters or scenes from plays by Ludvig Holberg, as seen on the first stamp, offering Marstrand’s painting Holberg Meets [his characters] Jacob von Thybo and Jean de France. The other stamp shows Study of an Italian Woman and a Sleeping Child. Marstrand married in 1850 and had five children. Two years before his death he suffered an aneurism and partial paralysis.


While Marstrand was a frequent visitor to Italy, his younger contemporary the German painter Hans von Marées (24 December 1837 – 5 June 1887) spent only his final years there. He was a student at the Berlin Academy and moved to Munich in 1857. There he came into contact with Franz von Lenbach. His later visits to France, the Netherlands, and Spain and service in the Franco-Prussian War were followed by a move to Florence, where he met Anselm Feuerbach and Arnold Böcklin. In his earlier years von Marées was a portraitist, turning eventually to mythological topics. One of these was a grand triptych on The Hesperides (1884). Unfortunately this can be seen only dimly on a low-res scan of a stamp from Oman, which in any case offers only the central panel, but the link provided for your viewing convenience shows the entirety in some detail.

The Estonian poet and dramatist Lydia Jannsen (24 December [O.S. 12 December] 1843 – 11 August [O.S. 30 July] 1886) was better known by her pseudonym Lydia Koidula, meaning “Lydia of the Dawn”. Her father was somehow able to get the Russian government to allow him to publish the first national Estonian language newspaper in 1864, to which Lydia contributed before producing her finest work, The Nightingale of the Emajõgi, in 1867. In the meantime the Jannsens had set up an Estonian dramatic society, and as the first to write an original play in the Estonian language, Koidula is viewed as the founder of Estonian theater. Two of her poems were set to music and sung at the first Estonian Song Festival in 1869. One of these, “Mu isamaa on minu arm” (“My Country is My Love”), became an alternate and unofficial anthem during the Soviet occupation (1921-40). During those years, the official anthem, written by her father Johann Voldemar Jannsen with music by Fredrik Pacius, was banned, but the people would invariably sing Koidula’s song at the conclusion of every festival, as they continue to do to this day.

Of great importance in the Russian theater of a later day was the director, writer, producer, and administrator Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko (23 December [O.S. 11 December] 1858 – 25 April 1943, Moscow), who worked with Konstantin Stanislavski. Together they founded the Moscow Art Theater in 1898 (since 1926 the Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theater). Born in Georgia of mixed Ukrainian-Armenian heritage, Nemirovich-Danchenko was schooled at Tbilisi and at the Moscow State University, which he left in 1879 for a life in the theater. He began as a critic and published his own first play in 1881. It was staged the next year. Subsequently he became a pedagogue, with Vsevolod Meyerhold among his students. Nemirovich-Danchenko established the school associated with the Moscow Art Theater in 1943 but died of a heart attack the same year, aged 84. He is honored (with Stanislavski) on a Soviet stamp from 1976 and on a Russian label from 1998, the stamps marking the 75th and 100th anniversaries of the Moscow Art Theater.

Speaking of significant anniversaries, today is the sesquicentennial of the birth of Ottoman poet Tevfik Fikret (December 24, 1867 – August 19, 1915). He was born Mehmed Tevfik in Constantinople and excelled at school despite his mother’s early death and his father’s political exile. He was a teacher all his adult life, eventually becoming principal of the high school he had attended. Fikret also started and edited literary magazines. He opposed the autocratic Sultan Abdul Hamid II and was frequently investigated by the police. For this reason and because of his mastery of the language, Fikret is considered by many the founder of modern Turkish poetry.


The number of stamps honoring German chess master Emanuel Lasker (December 24, 1868 – January 11, 1941) is abundant. Of historical players, probably only José Capablanca is comparable. It was Capablanca who wrested control of the world championship from Lasker in 1921. Lasker had held the position for some 27 years. He was also a brilliant mathematician who made significant contributions to that field and an expert on other games such as contract bridge and Go. He even devised his own game, Lasca, a checkers variant. For those who may pooh-pooh the inclusion of chess masters here on AoSotW, Lasker earns admittance on the basis of a play, an unsuccessful one called History of Mankind, he co-wrote with his brother Berthold. When Lasker got word that the play had been accepted for performance at a Berlin theater in 1925, he was so frazzled that he lost in a poor showing against that day’s chess opponent. Lasker and his wife Martha, whom he had married at age 42 in 1911, were driven from Nazi Germany in 1933 and briefly accepted an invitation to reside in the Soviet Union. It seems they got out of there just in time, too, for the man who had invited them fell victim to Stalin’s purges in 1938, a year after they had relocated to the United States. A close friend of Albert Einstein, Lasker also wrote books of philosophy, which, however, made little impact. His sister-in-law was the poet Else Lasker-Schüler.

Another chess player who shares this December 24th birthday with Lasker was the German player Willi Schlage (24 December 1888 – 5 May 1940), known as much, probably, for his teaching as for his performance against more celebrated players. A bit of trivia is that one of Schlage’s games is borrowed for the scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey where astronaut Frank Poole loses to the HAL 9000.

The Croatian painter Emanuel Vidović (1870 – 1 June 1953) was born and died in Split. He studied sculpture, then painting, in Venice, but rebelled against the rigidity of the instruction and left the school after three years. He remained in Italy, moving to Milan in 1892 and discovering a favorite spot in the town of Chioggia. By 1897 he was exhibiting internationally, with a show in Copenhagen, before returning to Split, becoming a drawing master, and opening his studio. Vidović’s first solo exhibitions were given in Split and Zagreb in 1903. Since 1986 an Emanuel Vidović Gallery has existed in his hometown. There are two stamps, one from Yugoslavia, Interior, and one from Croatia, Angelus.

Just like Nemirovich-Danchenko, Polish actor and theater producer Stefan Jaracz (24 December 1883 – 11 August 1945) left school to work in the theater. His opportunities took him all over Poland, before and after World War I. From 1930 to 1932 he was artistic director for Warsaw’s Ateneum Theater, leading innovative productions. In the Second World War he was interned at Auschwitz but released in 1941. His health, naturally, had been adversely affected, and he died not long after war’s end. Two Polish theaters, in Lódz and Warsaw, are named for him. The stamp places him with fellow thespians Wojciech Bogusławski and Helena Modjeska.

Another actor and theater director was the Frenchman Louis Jouvet (24 December 1887 – 16 August 1951). He had to overcome speech impediments and stage fright in the learning of his craft and came to excel at makeup and lighting. Apparently there’s a special accent light he invented that is named for him. He worked closely with Jean Giraudoux and collaborated on the first production of The Madwoman of Chaillot in 1945. This was at the Théâtre de l’Athénée, which Jouvet helmed from 1934 to his death from a heart attack in his dressing room in that very building. Jouvet acted in some three dozen films and taught at the French National Academy of Dramatic Arts.

American sculptor Paul Manship (December 24, 1885 – January 28, 1966) is best known for the famous Prometheus in Rockefeller Center, shown on a stamp from St Kitts. He also designed the modern version of New York City’s official seal. Born in St. Paul, Manship studied in Philadelphia, New York, and Rome (American Academy, 1909-12). He had (and has) a number of New England connections: he was a resident at the Cornish Art Colony in Plainfield, New Hampshire and founded the retreat on Cape Ann, formed from two disused granite quarries in Gloucester. Additionally, several of Manship’s works can be seen in Massachusetts museums: a few items at the Gardner, the Venus Anadyomene fountain at the Addison Gallery of American Art on the campus of Phillips Academy in Andover (here’s a side view as seen on a miniature copy), and, of course, at the Cape Ann Museum in Gloucester.

We hop back to France for the painter, engraver, sculptor, and near centenarian Pierre Soulages (born 24 December 1919), who turns 98 today. Soulages has become closely associated with the color (or non-color) black, or rather, black as it reflects light, as Soulages considers light to be a work material. He uses “Outrenoir” (Beyond Black) as a descriptive term. Blue and violet often make their presence felt, as in the abstract shown on the stamp from 1986. Soulages is the first living artist to have been invited to exhibit at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. A new museum, the Musée Soulages, opened in his hometown of Rodez in 2014.

Now let’s go to the movies. I could write at great length about the fascinating Michael Curtiz (December 24, 1888 – April 10, 1962) but won’t. He has no individual stamp yet and can be honored here only by means of a Casablanca stamp from Sierra Leone. (Humphrey Bogart’s birthday is tomorrow.) Curtiz was born Manó Kaminer in Budapest and had already directed 64 films in Europe (including Hungary’s and Denmark’s first features) before coming to the US in 1926. At Warner Brothers he directed 86 more. Six of Curtiz’s films were nominated for Best Picture Oscars, but only Casablanca won.


Film composer Franz Waxman, who was born on this day in 1906, worked with Curtiz only once, I think, on the 1947 film noir The Unsuspected with Claude Rains (Casablanca again). Certainly Waxman was first and foremost one of the best composers for the movies, but he accomplished much more. He was born Franz Wachsmann to Jewish parents in Königshütte, Silesia (then in Germany, today Chorzów in Poland). He studied composition and conducting from the age of 16 at the Dresden Music Academy, putting himself through school with his earnings from playing popular piano. While still quite young he met composer Frederick Hollander, whose score for Josef von Sternberg’s famous film The Blue Angel Waxman orchestrated in 1930. In 1934, Waxman was badly beaten by Nazi sympathizers in Berlin and promptly left Germany with his wife. They went first to Paris, then Hollywood, where they met director James Whale. Whale had been struck by the young composer’s first dramatic film score (for Fritz Lang’s French fantasy Liliom) and hired him to score The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Waxman served briefly as Head of Music at Universal Studios before moving on to MGM as a composer, which he preferred. He established himself with his score, his first fully symphonic one, for Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) and went on to score over 150 films, including Stalag 17, Rear Window, and Peyton Place. He won two consecutive Oscars for Sunset Boulevard and A Place in the Sun and was nominated ten other times. Besides his work in film, Waxman founded the Los Angeles Music Festival, which he directed and conducted until his death from cancer on 24 February 1967. Among his concert compositions are a Carmen Fantasy for violin and orchestra, a Tristan and Isolde Fantasy for violin, piano, and orchestra, a Sinfonietta (I have an old Decca LP of Waxman leading his Los Angeles Festival Orchestra in this 1955 piece), an oratorio, Joshua (1959), and “The Song of Terezin” (1965) for soprano, choirs, and orchestra, a setting of poetry written by children interned at Theresienstadt concentration camp.

American actress Ava Gardner (December 24, 1922 – January 25, 1990) not only appeared in a number of hit films, but she was married to three famous men, Mickey Rooney (1942-43), Artie Shaw (1945-46), and Frank Sinatra (1951-57). Her only Best Actress Oscar nomination was for Mogambo (1953), the poster for which shows up on a stamp from Monaco. The other Gardner stamps show her alone (Cuba), with Robert Taylor (Rwanda), and with hubby #3 (Somalia). Gardner’s best films include The Killers (1946), The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952), The Barefoot Contessa (1954), On the Beach (1959), and Seven Days in May (1964).

One of the most prolific recording artists, Indian playback singer Mohammed Rafi (24 December 1924 – 31 July 1980), sang, it is said, over 7,000 songs in a wide variety of languages. He started at 13 with a public performance in Lahore and must not have closed his mouth thereafter. Rafi was most associated with the Hindi film industry. He worked with composer S. D. Burman in more than three dozen movies and provided the singing voice for such renowned actors as Dev Anand and Guru Dutt. From what I can understand, he actually appeared in only two films.

Dutch graphic designer Joost Swarte, who turns 70 today (born 24 December 1947), is likely best known as a cartoonist, but he has done much work in other areas, such as posters, LP and CD covers, furniture, stained glass windows, and postage stamps. For some time he has been providing covers for The New Yorker. He has even designed a theater building, De Toneelschuur, for his native Haarlem. Among the stamps he has designed are a set of four to benefit child welfare in 1984 and Holland’s 1991 Christmas stamp.


We also have two painters who died on or about December 24th. Simon Marmion (c1425 – 24 or 25 December 1489) came, as was so often the case, from a family of artists. His patrons included Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, Charles the Bold, and Margaret of York. Marmion is best remembered for his illuminated manuscripts, but also produced paintings, including portraits, altarpieces, and so on. His Virgin and Child appears on a 1978 Christmas stamp from Australia.

Russian portraitist Fyodor Rokotov (1736–December 24, 1808), by contrast, was the child of serfs who had to buy his freedom in the late 1750s. Prior to that he was afforded the opportunity to study art at the Saint Petersburg Academy, to which he was admitted as an Academician in 1765, though he relocated to Moscow in that year. His work became very fashionable. One of his works is one that has come to be known in some circles as the Russian Mona Lisa, a Portrait of Alexandra Struyskaya (1772). The Polish stamp from 1967 shows the rather similar Portrait of Daria Flodorovna.

Verdi’s Aida had its (postponed) first performance on this date in 1871. The opera was commissioned for the opening of the Khedivial Opera House in Cairo in 1869, but logistical complications arose as a result of the Franco-Prussian War, and the house was inaugurated with a performance of Rigoletto instead. Aida had its première at the house two years later and has thus been a popular theme on Egyptian stamps, appearing on no fewer than six separate issues of that country. In addition, Aida has been cited by name on stamps from South Africa and San Marino.

Honorable mention today goes to English poet and educator Matthew Arnold (24 December 1822 – 15 April 1888), American composer and lyricist Harry Warren (born Salvatore Antonio Guaragna, 1893 – September 22, 1981), who won three Oscars and wrote “Jeepers Creepers”, “That’s Amore”, and “Chattanooga Choo Choo”, American artist and film maker Joseph Cornell (1903 – December 29, 1972), and sci-fi writer, poet, actor, and chess expert Fritz Leiber (1910 – September 5, 1992).

A graduate of the University of Massachusetts with a B.A. in English, Doug Briscoe worked in Boston classical music radio, at WCRB, WGBH, and WBUR, for about 25 years, beginning in 1977. He has the curious distinction of having succeeded Robert J. Lurtsema twice, first as host of WGBH’s weekday morning classical music program in 1993, then as host of the weekend program when Robert J.’s health failed in 2000. Doug also wrote liner notes for several of the late Gunther Schuller’s GM Recordings releases as well as program notes for the Boston Classical Orchestra. For the past few years he’s been posting a Facebook “blog” of classical music on stamps of the world, which has now been expanded to encompass all the arts for The Arts Fuse.

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