John Atherton: On Being the Opposite of a Starving Artist.

“(John Atherton) is one of those fortunate artists who is able to function happily in the two disparate worlds of “fine” and “commercial” art. For him, the dual role seems natural and agreeable. He says: ‘I am convinced that (for me, and essentially for many who feel as I do) a decent life has greater bearing on the caliber of the work done than the so-called loss of face in making compromises. To do good work, it follows reasonably that to eat regularly, live in pleasant surroundings, and have enough independence to be able to devote oneself principally to the creation of art is a more intellegent solution than the opposite of the starving artist, freezing in his garret with pride intact. The point is to be able to recognize when the income from commercial art has reached a reasonable figure, and not let greed overcome the urge for self- expression.

‘I shall probably always do a certain amount of commercial art – for two reasons. One is that certain things are fun, and I like to do them. The other is that the life it enables me to lead is the best, for me, and I have no desire to change it for the worse.'”

-from Forty American Illustrators and How the Work by Ernest W. Watson (Watson-Guptill Publications, 1946)

John Atherton (1900-52) was a prominant illustrator for his entire life and was a good friend of Norman Rockwell. He called himself a Magical Realist, and his work is in the collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Art Institute of Chicago, The Museum of Modern Art, The Whitney Museum, and the Smithsonian Museum, among others.


Further Observation

Deborah Solomon’s 2013 biography of Norman Rockwell, The American Mirror: The Art and Life of Norman Rockwell (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), gives a glimpse at a testy compromise with commercialism for Atherton.

“Atherton had distrusted commercial art ever since his Bon Ami calamity – he had been assigned to create a series of drawings of a blond housewife cheerfully scrubbing her sink with Bon Ami, the cleansing powder. The drawings came back to him with instructions to revise them – to redo the woman and give her red hair and a more voluptuous chest. “That really floored Jack,” his wife, Maxine recalled. “They wanted a big, bosomy redhead using Bon Ami. He said, ‘To hell with commercial art'”



N. C. Wyeth: Too Busy for Controversy


“By the late twenties and early thirties my easel pictures were being shown and somewhat admired. Critics used the word ‘illustrator’ as a denigrating label. I resented the implied barrier between illustration and painting but I was too busy to enter into controversy. Both illustrator and painter are artists who are in pictorial communication. Both should be measured by their competence — not by artificial compartments contrived by critics.”

N. C. Wyeth (1882-1945)


Famous Illustrators: Rembrandt van Rijn


It is written that Rembrandt created three illustrations in his career (art specifically made for publications), and this is one of them: The Marraige of Jason and Creusa. The etching was designed as an opening illustration for the frontpiece of Jan Six’s printed edition of his play, Medea, in 1648. Jan Six was a very important patron of Rembrandt.

Interestingly, Rembrandt’s image does not depict an actual scene from the play. Whether he chose to purposely show an event that was not described (the great American illustrator N.C. Wyeth used that approach often for his illustrations), or whether he was depicting a tableau vivant or living picture (a staged picture using actors and props created between acts) is unknown. Either way, the artist presents a dramatic and telling narrative moment, showing a glowing marraige scene beyond the shadows -shadows that hold the treacherous Medea, in the bottom right foreground.


Jan Six portrait by Rembrandt