John Philip Falter
John Philip Falter (1910 – May 1982), more commonly known as John Falter, was an American artist best known for his many cover paintings for The Saturday Evening Post.
Born in Plattsmouth, Nebraska, Falter moved at an early age with his family to Falls City in 1916, where his father, George H. Falter, established a clothing store. As a high school student, Falter created a comic strip, Down Thru the Ages, which was published in the Falls City Journal. J. N. "Ding" Darling, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist of the Des Moines Register, saw some of Falter’s cartoons and said he should become an illustrator.
After graduating from high school in 1928, Falter studied at the Kansas City Art Institute where he met and became friends with R. G. Harris, Emery Clarke, and Richard E. Lyon. He won a scholarship to the Art Students League of New York City however only lasted one month there due to his fear of his fellow students, many of whom were avowed Communists. This was all too new for the small-town Falter, who fled and immediately looked for work as an illustrator. In the evenings, however, he took courses at the Grand Central School of Art, above Grand Central Terminal. This was during the Great Depression when most young artists had difficulty finding work. Falter, however, began illustrating covers for the pulp magazines.
He opened a studio in New Rochelle, New York, which had long been a colony for illustrators, a community that included such artists as Frederic Remington and Norman Rockwell. Within a few years his three Kansas City Art Institute friends Harris Clarke, and Lyon had all moved to a shared studio in New Rochelle to launch their respective careers as freelance illustrators. Falter recalled, "Rockwell was our inspiration then. I didn't meet him until years later. We would hear that Rockwell had been out on the street. and we'd all rush out and hunt for him. If they'd tell us that he had looked in a shop window, we'd look in the same window trying to absorb what he looked at by osmosis."
Falter received a major break with his first commission from Liberty Magazine to do three illustrations a week in 1933. "They paid me $75 a week," Falter said, "just like a steelworker. But my expenses for models and costumes were running $35 a week during one 16-week serial I was illustrating." Falter soon discovered that there was much more money to be made in advertising than in other fields of illustration. By 1938, he had acquired several advertising clients including Gulf Oil, Four Roses Whiskey, Arrow Shirts and Pall Mall. Falter's work appeared in major national magazines. "This was high pay for less work," Falter said, "and it gave me a chance to experiment in the field of easel painting."
World War II
In 1943, he enlisted in the Navy and was rapidly promoted from chief boatswain's mate to lieutenant on special assignment as an artist. His final rank was Chief Petty Officer. His talents were applied to the American war effort to spur on recruiting drives. Falter designed over 300 recruiting posters. One popular Falter poster dealt with the loose-lips-sink-ships theme. It showed a broad-shouldered Navy man with the caption, "If you tell where he's going, he may never get there." During this period, he also completed both a series of recruiting posters for the women's Navy, or WAVES, and a series depicting 12 Medal of Honor winners for Esquire.
The Saturday Evening Post
Falter's first Saturday Evening Post cover, a portrait of the magazine's founder, Benjamin Franklin, is dated September 1, 1943. That cover began a 25-year relationship with the Post, during which Falter produced over 120 covers for the magazine until the editors changed its cover format from illustrations to photographs. Falter commented, "There were plenty of Rockwell imitators and J. C. Leyendecker imitators. My main concern in doing Post covers was trying to do something based on my own experiences. I found my niche as a painter of Americana with an accent of the Middle West. I brought out some of the homeliness and humor of Middle Western town life and home life. I used humor whenever possible." Of Falter's 120-odd covers, nearly all were his own ideas. "Four didn't make it," he said, "probably 12 ideas were supplied by the Post." Many of his friends acted as models for his covers; four of the covers depict his close friend, the actor J. Scott Smart.
Falter said that he tried "to put down on canvas a piece of America, a stage set, a framework for the imagination to travel around in." His panoramic covers with long views of people were a major departure from the Post's customary close-up designs. In fact. Norman Rockwell himself adjusted to the newer style for a time, which he later referred to as his "Falter Period."
Falter once thought that The Saturday Evening Post would provide him with lifetime employment. "I was sort of going along on a ship that would never sink," he said. “It seemed that nothing could possibly happen to the Post. Then suddenly, in my middle life, I had to retool and give up my horse for a car." Falter was forced to spend much of his savings in the months that followed the demise of the Post.
Portraits and book covers
Although best known for his Saturday Evening Post covers, Falter also provided illustrations for numerous other publications, including Esquire, Good Housekeeping, Cosmopolitan, McCall's, Life Magazine and Look.
Falter was a prolific artist who depicted a wide range of subject matter in a variety of media. As television eliminated many national magazines in the 1950s and 1960s, Falter turned to portrait painting and book illustration. He illustrated over 40 books, and one of his favorite projects was illustrating a special edition of Carl Sandburg's Abraham Lincoln - The Prairie Years. Other favorite book projects included Houghton-Mifflin's Mark Twain series and illustrations for The Scarlet Pimpernel. His stepson, Jay Wiley, posed for a book Falter illustrated, Me 'n Steve. A final favorite was humorist Corey Ford's The Horse of a Different Color.
Falter produced a body of work impressive in volume and variety of subject. Reflecting a lifelong interest in jazz, he did scenes of Harlem nightclub life in the 1930s, and later on, portraits of famous jazz musicians. An excellent portrait painter, Falter had Clark Gable, James Cagney, Olivia de Havilland and Admiral "Bull" Halsey among his sitters. Falter was an accomplished jazz clarinet player and entirely self-taught. He took great pleasure in visiting jazz friends he sketched live, only to sit in with them in a set after sketching at clubs such as Eddie Condon's on West 52nd St in New York City.
1970s and 1980s
During the 1970s and 1980s, after a career crisis brought on by the end of illustrated magazines, Falter turned to historical and American Western themes, a passion of his. The 3M Company commissioned him to do a series of six paintings in celebration of the American Bicentennial, titled From Sea to Shining Sea. Falter completed over 200 paintings in the field of Western art, with emphasis on the migration of 1843 to 1880 from the Missouri River to the Rocky Mountains. He was honored by his peers with election to the Illustrators Hall of Fame] in 1976, and membership in the National Academy of Western Art in June 1978.
When Falter was asked to look back over his career, he commented that he had never painted a painting that he wouldn't like to paint over again; he always saw something he thought he could improve on. His output was prodigious, and by his own reckoning included over 5,000 paintings, many of which hang in museums and eminent collections.
In 1980, a documentary video, "A View from the Standpipe: John Falter's World", was released by Nebraska Educational Television. This video provides more information about John's work, through one-on-one interviews in his Philadelphia location and shows a number of his paintings. Some of these examples of Falter's personal paintings are not often seen by the general public. These paintings are different from his usual subjects and often contain humorous partially hidden touches not seen on first viewing. The video features one example, "The Big Spender", which is a beautiful Vermeer-like still-life of a dinner plate, crystal glass and linen napkin, with a dime by the plate on a table, and you can barely see a huge fly coming into the frame heading for the plate.
Death and legacy
John Falter died in May, 1982, at the age of 72, at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia after suffering a stroke. He had been living in the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia. After his death, Falter's widow, Mary Elizabeth Falter, donated memorabilia from his studio, as well as several paintings and papers to the Nebraska State Historical Society. This material reflects Falter's career from 1930 to 1982.
His daughter, Suzanne Falter, is an author and maintains a web-based business coaching others to fulfill their creative dreams. His stepson, Jay Wiley, is a freelance photographer specializing in restaurant and hospital photography as well as general subjects. His stepdaughter, Lisa Waitneight, is a homemaker, and his other stepdaughter, Sarah Johansen, is a homemaker as well.
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- Media related to John Philip Falter at Wikimedia Commons
- Museum of Nebraska Art, Kearney, Nebraska
- John Falter Original: Attempted Assassination of Theodore Roosevelt Shapell Manuscript Foundation
- John Philip Falter tear sheets in the Charles Craver Collection at the Modern Graphic History Library
- The Museum of Nebraska Art