John Carlton Atherton

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John Carlton Atherton

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John Carlton Atherton was born in Brainard, Minnesota on June 7th, 1900. After a brief service in the U.S. Navy during WWI, Atherton moved to San Francisco, California in 1920. There, he attended College of the Pacific and The California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) and practiced his techniques in various West-Coast studios. Upon winning a five-hundred dollar first prize award in the Bohemian Club’s annual exhibition in 1929, Atherton moved to New York City to test his ability as a commercial artist. He became widely successful while designing advertisements for companies such as General Motors, Shell Oil, Container Corporation of America, and Dole. But after 1936, encouraged by friend Alexander Brook, an acclaimed New York realist painter, Atherton returned to the fine arts. This new work primarily consisted of symbolic, often bleak landscapes that were becoming a favorite subject of the new surrealist movement in America. Atherton presented his first solo exhibition in New York’s Julien Levy Gallery in 1938 and the artist continued to be represented by the renowned gallery throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Other contemporary artists also showing at the gallery were Max Ernst, Joseph Cornell, Frida Kahlo, and Pavel Tchelitchew, who together supported a decidedly nonconformist movement. Artist Dorothea Tanning once described the prestige of the gallery: “Of all the gallery activity on Fifty-Seventh Street, where everything happened in those days, it was the Julien Levy Gallery that was truly making art history, the place where it was ‘at.’ ”1 Atherton’s reputation increased to a national scale when he designed the art deco stone lithograph poster for the 1939 World’s Fair that strikingly depicted Earth and its atmospheric layers in the lap of Liberty. More recognition followed when, in 1941, the Museum of Modern Art headed a National Defense Poster Competition, which was co-founded by the Army Air Corps and the Treasury Department. Atherton won the first prize in the Defense Bond category for his poster “Buy a Share in America” depicting one hand shaking the hand of America above a factory. Shortly after, in 1943, Atherton placed in the prestigious “Artists for Victory” Competition. Amidst over fourteen-thousand entries, Atherton’s “The Black Horse” won a three-thousand dolor fourth prize award. The acclaimed artist brought his popular designs into high circulation once he began creating posters and covers for such publications as Fortune, Saturday Evening Post, and Holiday. Atherton would eventually illustrate over forty covers for Saturday Evening Post, starting with his December 1942 design, “Patient Dog.” This picture is reminiscent of Norman Rockwell’s famous Americana style and captures a poignant moment of nostalgia: a loyal dog looks toward a wall of hunting equipment and the framed picture of his young owner in military dress. In the late 1940’s, Albert Dorne, fellow Saturday Evening Post illustrator, founded the Famous Artists School, an institution to teach the art of “correspondence illustration.” John Atherton was among the “famous artists” such as Al Parker, Jon Witcomb, and Norman Rockwell, who contributed to the program. Atherton eventually moved to Arlington, Vermont. In his free time, Atherton enjoyed fly-fishing and was famous for his pioneering fly-tying techniques. He brought his artistic talent to the field when he wrote and illustrated the fishing classic The Fly and The Fish. Sadly it was this very hobby that brought on Atherton’s premature death. The famous illustrator and artist died at age fifty-two (in 1952) in a drowning accident while fly-fishing in New Brunswick, Canada. He was survived by his wife, Maxine Breeze. 1. McMullen Museum of Art, “Accomodations of Desire” II. AN ANALYSIS OF THE ARTIST'S WORK John Atherton’s commercial and illustrative work was characterized by strong draftsmanship and precise composition. His still life advertisements for Dole exemplify his attention to detail and clarity of forms. The fruit is well molded with modulated color and slight reflections describing the shapes. There is also simplicity in their placement that produces a highly focused and readable piece. Atherton had no shame in blurring the line between commercial and fine art, though illustrators were (and still are) often considered lesser artists. He said in his statement for the seminal 1943 Museum of Modern Art exhibition, American Realists and Magic Realists, “Any painting lives or will last because it is well painted, regardless of whether it is a potato or a human body. By this I do not mean mere technical dexterity but painting which builds the spirit of the forms.” For his fine art gallery pieces, Atherton retained the defined forms from his technical commercial experience but instead placed his subjects in surrealist situations. Atherton was highly influenced by the magic realist movement that had roots in European surrealism but carried distinctly American undertones. While other magic realists, such as John Wilde, focused on themes of agriculture and fertility, Atherton often opted for more industrial landscapes. His practiced exactitude aided him in this effort and in such pieces as Rubber…and the National City Bank of New York. This work from 1952 is not easily comprehendible like Atherton’s previous magazine covers. This is an open-ended narrative where strong diagonals pull together the natural elements of a tree and grass in the foreground and industrial towers and piping in the background. There are no figures present in this barren but charged landscape, only an ambiguous bunch of floating molecules that cast a long shadow across the flat ground. Perhaps this is apocalyptic imagery, reflecting the harsh realities of a post-WWII world and society’s unease for future development. Atherton leaves few clues for an answer. But, while we may not comprehend the precise meaning behind the “spirit of the forms” in Atherton’s surrealist works, there is still a palpable energy and gravitas within the compositions. Indeed, from advertisements and posters with clear messages to obscure surrealist landscapes, Atherton’s range of communication is evident and consistently powerful.



“John Carlton Atherton,” Westport Public Schools Digital Collections, accessed August 8, 2022,

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