John Falter’s Credo, in his own words: “It has been my hope to record what is probably the last of the great tradition of farming, of river life, of the domestic life so closely related to it, and of the small bits of peace and serenity that only exist close to nature. In treating what is, to me, a profoundly appealing subject, I have tried to be completely impersonal; it has been my wish to observe and record, to document and to commend the poetic way of life I have observed in many parts of America, from the Amish men of Pennsylvania to the cat fishermen of the Missouri River.”
Let’s retrace his steps. Let’s go back and see how he started.
In 1910, John was born at the mouth of the great Platt River in Plattsmouth, Nebraska.
Raised in Falls City, he inherited a pioneer quality of Big Spaces, of Big Skies and of Big Rivers.
In Falls City his father ran a men’s clothing store (this year celebrating its 60th anniversary).
John’s first earnings bought him a saxophone.
He did not know, at that time, that he would eventually sketch and paint from life 40 greats of jazz including Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Pee Wee Russell, Jeff Johnson and many others.
John didn’t make it as a musician. Obviously, he was destined to make it as an artist, instead.
But he did play in a band of sorts.
We all remember the “Loud Sounds,” an informal group of artists and art directors. They gathered together at the Society on many occasions, Regulars included: Al Parker, Ken Thompson, Dick Lockwood, Paul Smith, Cliff Sterratt, Clark Agnew and Falter, of course.
In 1928 he enrolled as a student at Kansas City Art Institute.
Then he won a scholarship to the Art Students League in New York and studied with Frank Bridgeman.
After the League, from 1930 to 1940, he was a successful illustrator of fiction and worked on some great advertising accounts. (He made a tremendous impact with a series of Pall Mall cigarettes.)
He entered the Navy in 1943; commissioned a Lieutenant on special art assignments. He did more than 300 recruiting pamphlets and posters.
While in the Navy he also did a notable series of 12 portraits of Great War Heroes, with text by Paul Gallico. These were published as Esquire gatefolds. On the reverse were pinups of Petty and Varga girls. As a result, Falter had most of his work turned to the wall.
In 1944, “Gramercy Park” (illustrated), his first Saturday Evening Post cover, appeared- a painting he had done for pleasure. From then on, until the Post ceased publication in the early 60s, John produced 175 covers.
My impression of Falter’s Post period, as a fellow contributor, was that they were monthly installments of his Credo above. Most notable was his series of famous streets of great cities: Park Avenue, Peachtree Street, Michigan Boulevard etc. One great cover depicted Truman addressing the House and Senate- a fabulous tableau of recognizable members.
John also toured and painted the Pennsylvania Dutch country, depicting the Amish farmers and their lives.
In the 50s, while living in San Francisco, he studied the Flemish painting techniques with Henry Rusk, the conservator of the DeYoung Museum and the Palace of the Legion of Honor. Though he continued his editorial and advertising work, he began to paint more and more for his own pleasure. He has done many portraits all through these years- including major portraits of Olivia de Haviland, Mrs. Clark Clifford, Dorothy Stickney, James Cagney, John Charles Thomas, Admiral Halsey and the 40 lithographs of the jazz greats.
In the 60s, he did less and less commercial work, concentrating on book illustration and private commissions.
From 1968 to 1970, he researched the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails, a trip his grandparents had made in a covered wagon. And in the 70s he did a series of six Bicentennial paintings for Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing Co. (the 3M company.) He recently completed designs for two U.S. Postage stamps- the subject: “Rural America.” Featured were the Chautauqua Tent in one; Kansas wheat fields in the other. He has, therefore, come full circle.
We know that: John did not go into his father’s business; John did not make Big Time Jazz; John did not personally win World War II. But, he had a lot to say about America with paint and brush.
It is now our time to recognize his outstanding contribution to American illustration.