The Adoration of the Shepherds: A Life-Size Nativity Painting at Glencairn Museum

Glencairn Museum News | Number 12, 2017

Bryn Athyn artist Edwin Herder with his nearly-completed, life-size painting of the Adoration of the Shepherds. The painting can be seen in Glencairn’s Upper Hall throughout the holiday season.

Maud and Miska Petersham, a husband-and-wife team, were well known in the first half of the 20th century as illustrators and authors of children’s literature. Their illustrations were a special favorite with Mildred Pitcairn. Mildred, a former teacher, loved children’s literature, and each year she prepared a list of books that she would carefully select, purchase, and send out as gifts to families. Famed children’s author Maurice Sendak once remarked that “children are the best critics because they have the most blunt opinions.” Mildred seems to have shared this point of view; one of her granddaughters still remembers feeling honored when she was considered old enough to read and critique the books that Mildred was considering as Christmas gifts for that year. Mildred gave copies of The Christ Child to over 100 families and friends in 1949 alone. 


Figure 1: A first edition (1931) of The Christ Child, opened to a two-page spread with the Adoration of the Shepherds. “Here is a picture book that in its reverent and childlike beauty has captured the very spirit of Christmas. Before making the pictures Maud and Miska Petersham went to Palestine, with the result that the characters of the Christmas story move across a background both beautiful and authentic” (The New York Times, December 13, 1931, p. 12).


Before illustrating The Christ Child, which was published in 1931, the Petershams traveled together for three months in Palestine researching the clothing and customs of the Holy Land. The Christmas story is told in the book using the text of the King James Version of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The Christ Child received favorable reviews, including one in The New York Times, during a time of increasing interest in children’s literature. In 1954, more than two decades after its first publication, Raymond Pitcairn wrote to the Petershams that he and Mildred believed that The Christ Child “is the best Gospel book for children that has ever been produced.” The Pitcairns’ enthusiasm for the illustrations in the book was so great that in the late 1930s (the exact year is unknown) they commissioned a life-size interpretation of the Adoration of the Shepherds for Glencairn, their newly-completed home in Bryn Athyn. Local artist Frank Snyder, who worked for the Pitcairns between 1937 and 1940, painted the 12 x 12 foot-scene, which was displayed on the wall above the Days of Creation fireplace every year during the Christmas season. Snyder’s other projects at Glencairn included the Doctrine of Charity mural below the ceiling in Michael Pitcairn’s room, a number of painted Plexiglas lampshades (including one featuring scenes from the Christmas story), and the artwork for several different Christmas cards sent out by the family.


Figure 2: Raymond and Mildred Pitcairn pose for their 1954 Christmas card picture beside the Days of Creation fireplace in Glencairn’s Upper Hall. Each year during the holiday season a large painting of shepherds visiting the baby Jesus was hung above the fireplace. The painting was adapted from an illustration in The Christ Child, a children’s book by Maud and Miska Petersham, who gave permission for this large-scale adaptation of their work.


Figure 3: Raymond and Mildred Pitcairn (left) in the Upper Hall of Glencairn during preparations for Christmas dinner in 1961. The Upper Hall was used as a dining room, and for holiday meals several tables were placed end to end to accommodate dozens of guests. Several of the table decorations are now in the collection of Glencairn Museum, and are included in the “Christmas in the Castle” tour. Christmas cards from friends and relatives were displayed on bulletin boards fastened to the wall. 


The Pitcairns eventually came to know the Petershams personally, and in 1954 Raymond enclosed an honorarium along with a letter thanking them for their permission to use Snyder’s interpretation of their illustration of the Adoration of the Shepherds, including a photograph of it on the cover of their Christmas card for that year (Figure 2):

“My wife and I are deeply grateful for your willingness for us to use your wonderful ‘Adoration of the Shepherds’ scene over our fireplace at Christmas time, and also for the Christmas card we hope to use this season. I am enclosing a check for $100 as an honorarium for this privilege which we appreciate so keenly.”

Raymond and Mildred also commissioned two watercolor paintings by Maud Petersham, which they used as Christmas cards in the 1960s; the subjects were the Annunciation to Mary and the Presentation of the Christ Child in the Temple. The Petershams visited the Pitcairns at Glencairn on at least one occasion in the late 1950s, and Mildred visited Maud at the Petersham home and studio in Woodstock, New York, in the 1960s. 

Figure 4: The Upper Hall of Glencairn decorated for Christmas in 2016; the Adoration of the Shepherds hangs above the Days of Creation fireplace. Wreaths and poinsettias, the latter grown in the Pitcairns' greenhouse next door at Cairnwood, were important elements in their Christmas decorating style. 

When Glencairn opened to the public as a museum in the early 1980s, the canvas of the Frank Snyder version of the Adoration of the Shepherds was found to be in a state beyond repair. In 2016, however, thanks to generous donations by members of the Glencairn Foundation, a full-size reinterpretation of the Petersham illustration was painted by Bryn Athyn artist Edwin Herder. Herder’s oil painting was inspired by both the original illustration in the Petershams’ 1931 book and by the interpretation of it painted by Snyder in the late 1930s. Herder has been working as an illustrator since 1975 and has produced thousands of illustrations for book covers, magazines, movie posters and advertising. He has done book covers for authors ranging from Michael Crichton to Margaret Truman to Tom Clancy, and magazine illustrations from Fortune to Rolling Stone to Popular Mechanics. Over the past few years he has been pursuing his love of oil painting and portraiture. 

Recently Edwin Herder was interviewed by Glencairn Museum News about his reinterpretation of the Petershams’ illustration of the Adoration of the Shepherds, currently installed above the fireplace in Glencairn’s Upper Hall. 

Tell us about your professional career as an artist.

I graduated from the Tyler School of Art in 1975 and immediately jumped into a career as a freelance illustrator, mainly in New York City. By “jumping into a career” I mean I spent a lot of time carrying my portfolio around the city, knocking on art directors’ doors, hoping to get a break. I finally got my first commission about eight months later, and things slowly started picking up from there. In those days I painted exclusively with an airbrush. I have done thousands of book covers, magazine illustrations, record jackets and advertisements.

In the early 1990s, the illustration business began transitioning from natural media to digital. Once computer-generated art was established as a better, easier way to produce illustrations, natural media all but disappeared in that market. I jumped on board, too. But I did miss making art the old-fashioned way, and started painting for art galleries, since there was no outlet in the commercial world. I also took up oil painting for the first time.

These days I split my time between the computer and the easel—and I love them both. In addition to making computer-generated still images, I also have been producing motion graphics . . . another really fun avenue in which to be creative.

How would you describe your personal painting style?

I have always been drawn to realism, and that’s where I gravitated when I started painting. It worked out well back in the early days of my career, because there was always a need to depict something that couldn’t be photographed or didn’t exist at all—and there was no Photoshop yet. 

What are your impressions about Frank Snyders late 1930s version of the Adoration of the Shepherds based on the heavily damaged painting that has survived?

The original Snyder painting was done on canvas. I’m not sure what paint he used. It is in very bad condition, with a great deal of the paint crumbling and flaking off. With oil being as durable as it is, this appears to be something different.


Figure 5: “This is the beginning of the underpainting of Mary and the baby, over the rough pencil drawing. The acrylic paint is applied with an airbrush, which I use for a couple of reasons. I basically learned to paint with it, and used it exclusively for more than 20 years. Because I am so comfortable with it, I use it to get the first stages of the painting done. The next step is using oil paint and transparent oil glazes on top of the underpainting. Glazes allow a richness and depth of color that is hard to achieve with opaque paints. Both the airbrush and the glazes are transparent and allow the white of the canvas to show through, adding an extra depth and luminosity.” (Edwin Herder)


Figure 6: “Mary and the baby, nearly complete, with the oil glazes applied. Because of the scale of this painting, and the fact that I could only work on one section at time, I found that it was easiest to complete (or nearly complete) one section, and then move on to the next.” (Edwin Herder)


Figure 7: The completed section with Mary and the baby.


Figure 8: This morphing video shows the first stages of the painting, including pencil drawing, underpainting, and finally oil and oil glazes.


What were your artistic goals for your reinterpretation of the PetershamsAdoration of the Shepherds?

My original intention was to duplicate the Snyder painting as closely as I could. But the more I thought about it, and the more I looked at what was his interpretation of the Petersham original, it didn’t feel right to take that approach. However, I did want to maintain the feel of Snyder’s painting, and have the people who remember seeing the original hanging on the wall above the fireplace get some of the same emotional response. Using the strong graphic elements of the sun rays, as well as the same color palette, it was easy to paint in “my style” and yet have the overall feel of the painting be remarkably similar to Snyder’s.


Figure 9: This morphing video shows the three versions of Mary: the Petersham book illustration, followed by the Snyder and Herder interpretations.


Is your painting a reinterpretation of the Petersham painting, the Snyder version, or both?

The original Petersham painting was, I believe, a pen and ink illustration with watercolor washes. Snyder’s was much more “painterly.” I felt it made more sense to follow the Snyder approach. I’m sure that the Petersham original was fairly small, while the painting hanging on the wall was 12 x 12 feet! Recreating a pen and ink drawing at that scale would be an interesting task, but wouldn’t achieve the results that we were after. I did refer to both versions often, so, in some regards, it is a combination.

What materials and paints did you use?

The painting was done in oil on linen (canvas made from linen as opposed to cotton). I always do an underpainting using acrylics, applied with an airbrush. After experimenting with a variety of methods, I found that painting the “rays” was most easily done with paper towels.


Figure 10: The first stage of the shepherd boy, in airbrushed acrylic.


Figure 11: A detail of the shepherds before the background was painted. These are the finished figures with oil and oil glazes over an acrylic underpainting.


Figure 12: The three shepherds, finished, with the head of the lamb just begun. In the foreground is the airbrush, used to apply the acrylic underpainting.


Did you use any human models?

I always paint using reference. I don’t paint from “life,” but rather photographs, which I generally take. For this painting I used a combination of photos I took of friends, neighbors, and family members, as well as a few stock images, which I combined with wardrobe and poses, shot here at Glencairn in my temporary “studio.”

How large is the painting and how is it secured to the wall?

Like Snyder’s painting, this one is 12 x 12 feet. While Snyder’s version was one piece, this new one is two pieces, joined down the center. The canvas is stretched on a two-piece frame, brilliantly designed and beautifully built by Lewis Grubb. When the two sides of the frame are joined together, they are hoisted into place using a self-contained pulley system. The whole thing fits neatly over the large painting that hangs over the fireplace during the rest of the year. I have heard nightmarish tales of trying to move and store the Snyder painting, so having the new version in two pieces makes the process much easier.


Figure 13: “This is a dry run, hanging the frame built by Lewis Grubb before the the canvas was stretched over it. The painting that hangs over the fireplace for the rest of the year can be seen under the plastic sheet. The dry run proved to be very successful—everything worked as planned!” (Edwin Herder)


What are the challenges of painting something that large?

Believe it or not, there wasn’t a readily available space in Glencairn to undertake such a large painting without disrupting the normal activity of the Museum. In addition, I’ve never painted anything this large (or remotely close) before, and I’m not sure how I’d do climbing up and down a ladder while trying to “keep an eye” on what I was painting. So we found a nice, quiet room in the basement that turned out to be perfect for the job. It doesn’t have a tall ceiling, so I devised a system sort of like a window shade. I could roll out the portion of the canvas on which I was currently painting, secure it to a board on my easel, and have it at eye height, no matter where on the painting I was working. It turned out to be very easy. Once the detail work was finished, the painting was stretched onto its frame and moved to a large storage room, where I could complete the “rays.” I loved painting that size, so much so that I immediately started on another “life-size” painting of Luciano Pavarotti. I hope to do many more in that scale.


Figure 14: “These are the two halves of the painting, one stretched on its frame, the other still just a roll of canvas. It was necessary to get the first half more or less finished and mounted before starting the background of the second, because of the many lines that needed to match up.” (Edwin Herder)


Figure 15: The finished painting being hoisted into place for the first time.


How long did it take you to complete the painting?

I worked on the painting over a five-month period. Because I was working on other projects as well, I don’t know the exact amount of time that I spent on it.

What has this project meant to you personally?

I loved every aspect of doing this painting. Having never painted a life-size figure, it was a journey into the unknown. As I said before, it turned out to be a great experience, even spurring a renewed excitement in my portrait work.

*  *  *

Edwin Herder continues to work as a painter and illustrator. To see more of his work, visit his website.

A complete archive of past issues of Glencairn Museum News is available online here.