John Russell Fulton: Isn’t Artistic Talent Supposed To Jump A Generation?

I can’t draw to save my life.  Neither can Jeff.  While be both can do a bit of  “abstract” work practical art has pretty much escaped us.  However the rest of our family has all kinds of talent in spades.

The most “famous” artist in our family is John Russell Fulton, our grandfather, who had a career illustrating and painting for most of the 20th century.  He did most of his work in advertising and “men’s adventure” story illustration: basically the “internet” and “video games” of his era.

I just created a Facebook site to commemorate his work.  Some of his contemporaries have become quite well-known, but so far my grandfather has been left to footnotes and “also rans”.

If you are interested in seeing the types of work someone who had a job in “advertising and adventure” would have done in to 1920’s through the 1950’s, there is a good sample of his work now posted.   A short history follows:

John Russell Fulton was born in 1896 in Valley Center, Kansas, to Francis (who, among other things, was an Arkansas law man, cowboy and descendent of the Royal Stuarts) and Millie Fulton. He spent his youth in the Oklahoma Indian Territory of his parents’ property. This first-hand experience of life on the frontier (with wolves and buffalo still roaming) no doubt influenced the authenticity of his later illustrations and oil paintings (Fulton made really great cowboy and covered wagon oils).

When he was in his teens he worked as a newspaper artist for Henry Allen’s (later a Kansas Senator) Wichita Beacon, was a staff artist at the Kansas City Star, and later from 1925-1926 worked for the Chicago Tribune.
He received training at the Art Institute, Chicago (1915), Fine Arts Academy, Chicago (1917-1918), American Academy of Art, Chicago (1926-1927), as well as took specialized courses and private instruction from Harvey Dunn and Robert Henri (Ashcan).

During 1918-1919, with rank as corporal during WWI, ‘he painted posters for the Army and organized an art class for wounded soldiers at Fort Sheridan, Illinois.’ (from Blue Book bio 1943). He returned to commercial advertising after the war (e.g. Karo Corn Syrup, Dodge Motors, Florsheim Shoes,’) and worked steadily from 1922-1928 freelancing, as well as was on the payroll of prominent agencies, such as ‘Palenski and Young.’ After getting a big break with Collier’s (covers) and Pictorial Review, he switched to magazine illustration and painting.

In the 20’s, he married Wilhelmine and had two sons John Jr. (killed in action in 1944 during WWII) and Shaffer. This decade is when Fulton’ art career began to flourish and he was on his way to becoming well-known for his work in the magazine field in Chicago and New York. He specialized in period and historical subjects, figure painting, New York scenes and exhibitor landscapes. He was represented for landscape and figure painting by the Forty-Seventh Street Gallery in New York City and had exhibits there for 10 years starting in 1938 (this gallery was ‘razed during the building boom which followed the advent of the United Nations’). And, although Fulton was a non-member, he regularly submitted paintings to the Academy of Design up until 1962, but continued getting invitations to the Academy up to 1970.

From 1929-1952 he was a cover and interior illustration artist for many leading publishers, but is most known for his work for McCall Company and its magazines Redbook (worked for 11 years) and Blue Book. His illustrations also appeared in other magazines, such as: Good Housekeeping, Colliers, Liberty, Saturday Evening Post, Harper’s Bazaar, American Magazine, The Pictorial Review, Argosy, and Cosmopolitan, among others.

He also illustrated a few books. including:
‘The Law on Horseback’: collection of western tales (1935) (Author/actor William S. Hart) 15 Pen and Ink drawings; Charles Scribner and Sons’ ‘Champion Caddy’ (1942) (Author Marion Renick); and Book-of-the-Month Club’s ‘Look to the Mountain’ for King Features Syndicate (1943).

One of Fulton’ last works as a magazine illustrator was an assignment to paint a series of scenes, one for each state (Blue Book’s ‘State Series’) which required extensive research as each scene was based on historical fact. A notable Blue Book cover by Fulton in another series (March 1951) was entitled ‘Men of America: Mark Twain.’ This work received a congratulatory note from Mark Twain’s cousin Cyril Clemens, the president of the International Mark Twain society on (March 25th 1951).

Unfortunately, the ‘State Series’ was dropped after about half the paintings had appeared when Blue Book magazine changed their style before they  ‘ceased publication in the rash of magazine failures that followed the advent of the radio, and LIFE and LOOK picture magazines.’

The sudden dropping of the old style illustrators, including the Blue Book artists and the ‘sudden retirement’ of their editor Donald Kennicott, sent a shock wave through these illustrators’ world. Fulton knew that times were changing, but apparently, when this Blue Book change occurred, it was like these loyal illustrators ‘dropped off the face of the earth’ over night. In a letter of Fulton’s wife wrote about the ‘killing of Kennicott’s Blue Book’ and also mentioned how the new president of McCall Corp., Marvin Pierce, didn’t believe in ‘periodicals that carried no advertising,’ and that there were ‘a few more Blue Books after Jan 1952 that tried to carry advertising’ before its demise (Marvin Pierce, btw, is former First Lady Barbara Bush’s dad).

Kennicott was very respected by the illustrators and was a good friend to Fulton. (Fulton had known him since his Redbook days).  His son, Shaffer, wrote: ‘What happened to (Dad) career-wise had happened to most illustrators by the mid-fifties. The vehicle for illustration was the magazine. Magazine sales were dropping, probably due to TV; many were going out of business. Remaining magazines were using more color photos for story illustration. The era of magazine illustration had come to an end, and with it dad’s career. Subconsciously, I think he knew his (commercial art) career was finished’ but he always spoke of the ‘Good old days in New York,’ ‘going back to N.Y.’ etc..’ up until his death.’

After Blue Book, Fulton, along with other dropped-illustrators, spread out to find work. Because of their ‘extensive background in realist styles and in American history’ many of these illustrators became ‘western theme artists in the tradition of Frederic Remington and Charles Russell’. After certain unsuccessful endeavors’ among other things, a short-lived printing company with Robert Beebes ‘Fulton-Beebe Prints’ (they put out a series of 3 New York scenes), and a project with agent Larry Miller (apparently a friend of Hollywood greats) to paint 12 oils for record jacket covers for ‘Tales of the Confederacy’ with Victor Jory, Fulton headed west, permanently, to California.

He moved to a studio in a remote city called ‘Hemet’ (from 1955-1959) to paint landscape, particularly desert and western scenes. This is where my Fulton really found out his ability as an artist. Two of these Hemet landscapes ‘Lilac Hill’ and ‘Desert’s Edge’ were accepted by the jury for the National Academy of Design’s 130th Annual Exhibition of oils, sculpture, prints, and watercolors and were exhibited in 1955. Apparently, he also still received scattered illustration jobs, but nothing like before 1952 in N.Y.

At one particular exhibit at the Cowie Galleries in Los Angeles in 1959, which included his ‘Tales of the Confederacy’ work, an ‘Alamo’ and ‘Desert’ series, along with other portraits, such as ‘The Cleaning Woman,’ and New England landscapes, Fulton’ work received notable praise. Critics compared his works to Sloan, Luks and Ashcan school, Bellows, Pyle, Grant, Wyeth, Marsh and Henri.

One critic in particular, Howard Burke, a Los Angeles Examiner art critic, wrote:
‘In the great tradition of such American Illustrators as Howard Pyle, Gordon Grant and N.C. Wyeth, Fult
on’s art has the aura of George Bellows, the overflowing life of Reginald Marsh and the workmanlike quality of Robert Henri. He proves that he is part of the contemporary American scene, and that good illustrating can be fine painting. As evidence of it, his work has been exhibited at the National Academy. To his fine drawing and composition he brings a masterful oil technique, and with his illustrator’s eye for pictorial truth, he achieves somewhat the Goya touch.’

In his later years, Fulton moved to his home and art studio in Southern California where he lived with his wife Wilhelmine, and near his only living son, and his four grand kids. In the last decade and a half of his life, Fulton continued to paint, draw, engrave and print, occasionally gave talks or taught art sessions, or acted as a judge for art contests. He continued to paint for, or sent paintings to, small exhibitions throughout the state (which my dad called ‘rip-off’ exhibits). He still talked about going back to NY up until his death. He lived to be 82.

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