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JOHN ATHERTON (1900-1952)
The Corn Belt [A Cover for 'Holiday’ Magazine August, 1948]
Gouache on paper, 18 x 14 in.
Signed (at lower center): Atherton
RECORDED: Russell Lord “The Corn Belt,” Holiday, vol. 4 no. 2 (August 1948), pp. 3, 34-47 illus. on cover // John Atherton, How I Make a Picture (Institute of Commercial Art, Westport, Connecticut: 1949), pp. 5-14, 14 illus.
Born in Brainerd, Minnesota, John Atherton was an accomplished painter and illustrator whose fanciful and highly original compositions made him a significant figure in the American Surrealist movement (sometimes referred to as “Magic Realism”) of the 1930s and ’40s. After serving in the Navy during World War I, he began his career on the West Coast, studying at the College of the Pacific, in Stockton, California, and the California School of Fine Arts, in San Francisco. A $500 first prize at the annual exhibition of the Bohemian Club in 1929 financed his move to New York, and he ultimately settled in Ridgefield, Connecticut. Much of his early success came as an illustrator, and, in addition to his advertisement designs for General Motors and Shell Oil, his work graced the covers of such popular publications as Fortune and The Saturday Evening Post.
The present work was commissioned by Holiday magazine in 1948. It appeared on the cover of the August issue of that year, in conjunction with a feature article entitled “The Corn Belt.” The following year Atherton used this work in a publication, entitled How I Make A Picture, for the Institute of Commercial Art, Westport, Connecticut. Presenting this picture in its numerous stages of development, Atherton superbly illustrated the artistic process of transforming a vague idea into a finished design. The article offers a rare glimpse of a work’s evolution, as told by the artist, from an amorphous commercial challenge into an original artistic solution. As this work suggests, Atherton’s success in commercial art lay not only in his ability to convey grand themes in a single simple image, but also to create dynamic, visually inventive images. His commercial designs –whether humorous, patriotic, somber, or sentimental – always display a level of fine art integrity rarely seen in the publishing realm.
In the present work an ear of corn plays the dominant role in the composition. The corn is propped up and assigned iconic status. It is the symbol of a way of life, the center of an entire society’s existence. The corn is painstakingly portrayed, with each kernel presented as a complex part of the whole. The sinewy husks, meanwhile, arc beautifully draped across the picture plane, invoking the image of an octopus whose tentacles stretch out to touch every aspect of its domain. In his article, Atherton described the stages of the painting’s development:
First, I mulled over the idea on the train to try to visualize how I could best express the idea of the corn belt in symbols, objects and landscape. Second, I made the little rough sketches on the train. Third, I carried them further in the following sketches, after doing the necessary research for the latter. Fourth, I did the painting which combined all the elements properly into a cohesive and expressive whole through the use of color (How I Make A Picture, p. 7).
Atherton was meticulous in the preparation of his designs. In particular he insisted upon accurately researching every detail. With regard to the present painting, Atherton once recounted:
A story goes with that ear of corn… A while back I did a ‘harvest’ cover for the Post. I used Vermont corn and was bombarded with letters from gloating Midwesterners commenting on how small the ears were. One man (an Iowan) was so concerned that he sent me several ears of what he said was real corn. Now it’s Vermonters’ turn to put the eagle eye on Iowa’s pride; one of those ears modeled for Holiday’s cover (cover caption, Holiday magazine [August 1948], p. 3).
With regard to the quirky inclusion of a hog (a Spotted Poland China, according to Holiday magazine’s cover caption [ibid.]), Atherton offers little insight. Trompe-l’oeil images or notes tacked on top of the primary composition were commonly employed by Atherton in his commercial works. They served as creative addenda or secondary ideas subordinate to the larger concept. Often they involved a text message that solidified the work’s meaning. The hog, in this instance, may represent the lesser but not insignificant role of livestock in the region, or possibly the symbiotic relationship between produce and livestock on the typical Iowan farm. Much of the corn in this region was, and is, grown as livestock feed.
Throughout the 1940s, Atherton was an active exhibitor at most of the major art institutions, including The Art Institute of Chicago; the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia; The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C.; the Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; and the National Academy of Design, New York. He was also involved in a number of important exhibitions extolling Surrealism in America, including Dorothy C. Miller and Alfred H. Barr’s American Realists and Magic Realists at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1943.
Atherton was an avid fisherman and member of the Anglers Club of New York. He died at the age of fifty-two while on a salmon-fishing trip in New Brunswick, Canada. His work is represented in numerous public collections, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Art Institute of Chicago; the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia; and the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut.