Organizations* : NAWA, SI
John Phillip Falter was born in Plattsmouth, Nebraska although the family homestead was in Atchison, Kansas. He started his illustration career rather young, selling his first artwork at twenty years old to Liberty, a pulp magazine. The Liberty magazine commission gave him the exposure he needed to gain other bluechip clients, including: Gulf Oil Company, Four Roses Whiskey, and Arrow Shirts.
His career flourished rising from pulp magazines until he was one of the most noted cover illustrators for the most notable magazine in the nation, the Saturday Evening Post.
John Falter studied art at the Kansas City Art Institute and later moved to New York to “get the right exposure and make career contacts,” and he matriculated at the Art Students League. He later attended classes at the Grand Central School of Art and studied under George Wright (1873-1951), an illustrator for The Century, Harper’s, Scribner’s, and the Saturday Evening Post.
Wright was a fine role model for before becoming an illustrator. He was a reporter and was strict in teaching students to make studies and to organize well in advance of starting their illustrative works. Wright also believed in showing clients all the possible ideas to get a better grasp of what the client expected. Likewise, Falter took the lessons well and did the same. He is reputed to have shown Ken Stuart, Art Editor for the Post, a series of sketch ideas for a cover, with Stuart remarking, “If the idea is right, it takes only a few simple lines for one artist to explain it to another.” Falter went on to illustrate forty-seven books for Reader’s Digest and one hundred and eighty-seven covers for the Saturday Evening Post.
Interestingly and prophetically his businessman father, George H. Falter, once said “You won’t be an artist son, until you’ve put a cover on the Saturday Evening Post.” Over his many years with the Post, John Falter painted mostly scenes he experienced as a youth growing up in Nebraska and Kansas. He also was a portrait artist and had the opportunity to paint jazz idols such as Louis Armstrong and Art Tatum.
He delighted in adding images of real people into his compositions, sometimes including himself. It seemed to arouse some furor on occasion and it also aroused interest similar to that of the cartoonist Al Hirschfeld’s lettering of his daughter’s name, ‘Nina’ hidden away on a caricature. The viewers searched for Falter’s image, usually with a pipe, standing in a crowd waiting to be found out.
In his later years, he painted portraits of a number of famous people. Although not for magazines, the portraits included actress Olivia De Havilland, actor James Cagney, and Admiral Halsey. In World War II, Falter joined the Navy as a chief boatswain’s mate, and when it was learned that his art work had been published, he was commissioned as “lieutenant with special art duties”.
During his seventy-two years, Falter’s paintings depicted a wide range of themes from episodes of American history such as ‘Charging San Juan Hill’ to ‘Country Boy and Collie’, which was reminiscent of his childhood. He illustrated special locales across America from the ‘Golden Gate Bridge’ to ‘Gramercy Park’. He once said, "If you are not in love with what you are trying to put on canvas, you had better quit." One theme which was prominent throughout all of his works was his deep love for America.
©2004 National Museum of American Illustration