John Atherton was a prominent magic realist painter and a noted illustrator whose works appeared on covers for Fortune, Holiday, and the Saturday Evening Post and in advertisements for Lincoln, General Motors, and Shell Oil.
He was born in Brainerd, Minnesota, and grew up in the state of Washington. After serving in the Navy, he studied at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco for three years. He began producing commercial art in about 1926. After winning a first prize award of $500 for a painting he showed in the annual Bohemian Club exhibition, he moved to New York in 1929. There he continued to produce advertisements and to paint.
His gouaches and oil paintings of the 1930s and 1940s suggest the influence of Surrealism and reflect the artist's predilection for fantasy and mysticism. In those images, juxtaposed unexpected objects in settings that have a vaguely dreamlike quality. For example, such paintings as Invasion—The Acrobats (1941; Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford) and The Black Horse—Imaginative Landscape, which won a purchase prize award at the Artists for Victory Exhibition at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1942. The following year Atherton's pictures were represented in the Museum of Modern Art's important exhibition of Magic Realism.
An avid fisherman throughout his life, Atherton died on a salmon-fishing trip in New Brunswick, Canada, in 1952, at the young age of fifty-two.
Atherton’s work may be found in numerous public collections, including the Art Institute of Chicago; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
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