For John Atherton there was no line drawn between ''fine'' and ''commercial'' art. He painted pictures for advertisers, magazine covers, and galleries alike. All were characterized by his strong sense of design and color.
Born in 1900 in Brainard, Minnesota to a working class family, John Atherton grew up in the Pacific Northwest. After serving in the Navy in World War I, he attended the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco where he settled during the 1920s. In 1929 Atherton moved to New York where he became a successful commercial artist, designing posters, advertisements, and covers for Fortune, Saturday Evening Post, Holiday, and numerous other magazines. In 1936, with the encouragement of Alexander Brook, he focused his attention back on fine art, beginning work on the series of bleak, symbolic landscapes for which he was to become well known.
Atherton was represented in the 1930s and 1940s by New York's prestigious Julien Levy Gallery. Like works by fellow maverick artists, Max Ernst, Joseph Cornell, Frida Kahlo and Pavel Tchelitchew, who also showed at the Julien Levy Gallery, Atherton's paintings combine elements of surrealism with disturbing imagery. Atherton brought the precision of his commercial work to these paintings, using dramatic foregrounding to heighten the symbolic drama, yet the exactitude never interferes with the mood of his paintings. In his statement for the seminal 1943 Museum of Art exhibition American Realists and Magic Realists, he stated that beyond ''mere technical dexterity,'' painting must build ''the spirit in the forms.''
Circus themes were popular subject matter for other American painters of the period including John Steuart Curry, Paul Cadmus, Reginald Marsh and Walt Kuhn. Atherton however, in September 27, boldly places his circus performers in a barren psychological landscape, offering no clear-cut symbols for interpretration. Like the mysterious paintings of fellow Magic Realists Peter Blume and Louis Guglielmi, Atherton's complex works from the 1940s are open-ended narratives which cannot be allegorically unraveled. With their odd, decimated landscapes, strangely compelling narratives and apocalyptic imagery, his paintings reflect the grim realities of World War Two.
Atherton's paintings from the early 1940s are his most important works and are in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, Wadsworth Athenaeum, Art Institute of Chicago, Albright-Knox Art Gallery and Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Throughout the 1940s, Atherton exhibited regularly in the annual exhibitions sponsored by the
Whitney Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Pennsylvania Academy
of the Fine Arts.