Read all of art critic David Apatoff’s columns here.
The Saturday Evening Post prided itself in selecting the best artistic talent to illustrate its popular stories. Its readers were very demanding, and delighted in pointing out the smallest errors in stories or pictures, so the Post sought artists with authentic experience. To paint its western stories, the Post preferred artists who had actually lived or traveled out West and seen the sights first hand. For its stories about socialites, it hired artists who were comfortable wearing tuxedos at nightclubs and high society parties. For adventures about trains or cars, it employed artists who genuinely loved and worked with vehicles.
When it came to stories about the high seas, they called on Anton Otto Fischer.
Fischer was born in Germany in 1882. He was orphaned at age five and sent away to a Christian charity orphanage. The boy loved art, but the orphanage had other plans for him: they trained him for the priesthood and when he reached the age of 12, placed him in a monastery. Fischer was miserable there, so one night he ran away, taking temporary refuge at the home of a sympathetic uncle in Munich before escaping to the sea.
Fischer’s first job was as a deckhand on a Dutch merchant ship. Over the next five years, he sailed on a Norwegian lumber bark, a Swedish steamer ship, and finally on a German trawler. In 1902 his ship docked in New York Harbor, and Fischer saw his golden opportunity. He jumped ship, leaving behind his wages and friends for a fresh start in America. He worked on crews for racing yachts while he applied for U.S. citizenship. Then it was back to the open sea, this time as a Merchant Marine.
All the time he was working on ships, Fischer never forgot his dream of becoming an artist. When he returned to New York he found work as a handyman and eventually a model for the famous illustrator A.B. Frost. His job fueled his interest in art even more, so in 1909 Fischer moved to Wilmington, Delaware to spend a year studying illustration with one of the top art teachers in the nation, Howard Pyle. At Pyle’s art school, Fischer was introduced to accomplished illustrators such as Saturday Evening Post artists N.C. Wyeth and Harvey Dunn.
After his year in art school, Fischer returned to New York where he set up an art studio at 15 West 29th Street. He sold his very first illustration to Harper’s Weekly, then illustrated a story for Everybody’s Magazine. Later that same year, Fischer sold his first illustration to The Saturday Evening Post, beginning a professional relationship that would last 48 years.
Once he had a stable income, Fischer married Mary “May” Ellen Sigsbee Ker, another art student from Howard Pyle’s school. It’s quite possible that one of the things about May that appealed to Fischer was that she came from an eminent nautical family. May was the daughter of Rear Admiral Charles D. Sigsbee and the granddaughter of General Henry Hayes Lockwood, a founder of the U.S. Naval Academy.
Fischer’s earliest illustration assignments were of human interest subjects. He portrayed folksy Americana scenes of sports or pretty girls, friendly country folk, or children at play. However, his career really took off when art directors discovered his knack for painting maritime scenes. His pictures had the realism and authenticity of someone who had spent years at sea.
A lucky break came when Fischer was asked to illustrate a nautical story by the popular author Jack London. Fischer’s pictures were so well liked that he became the primary illustrator of London’s highly popular books and magazine stories for the rest of London’s life.
It didn’t take long for word to spread. Fischer’s extraordinary knowledge of the sea became apparent to art directors at the Post, Metropolitan Magazine, Cosmopolitan, and Harper’s Weekly. He painted shipwrecks and lifeboats, seascapes and naval battles for magazines such as Everybody’s Magazine, Munsey’s, The Popular, Argosy, Top-Notch, Short Stories, and Sea Stories. He also illustrated books such as Moby Dick, Treasure Island, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. His work was in constant demand. Fischer’s art was also appreciated by fine artists of his era, and he became friends with well-known artists such as John Sloan.
But by far, his primary forum was the Post, where he illustrated popular series such as Tugboat Annie in 1931. He painted a dozen covers, as well as over 400 story illustrations, the last of which appeared in 1956.
Fischer never served in the armed forces, but during World War I he painted patriotic posters for the U.S. Coast Guard. U.S. Navy Commander Lincoln Lothrop proclaimed to Fischer: “You are responsible for recruiting many a seagoing lad.” Fischer maintained strong ties with the Navy and Coast Guard, and after the U.S. entered World War II Fischer was given the formal rank of Lieutenant Commander in the Coast Guard as “Artist Laureate.”
He again painted posters to support the war effort, but this time he also went to sea as part of a Coast Guard convoy patrolling the North Atlantic. One night Fischer was in the middle of celebrating his birthday with the crew when his ship spotted a German U-boat at close range. The ship opened fire and a full-scale night battle followed. Fischer’s birthday cake was left uneaten as the crew manned their stations, firing at the U-boat again and again, finally sinking her. Fischer returned to port with more exciting memories to paint.
He passed away in his home in Woodstock, NY, in 1962 at the age of 80.
His artwork was archived in the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut.
Featured image: Detail, Saturday Evening Post cover, March 21, 1936 (©SEPS)
From luminaries like Stan the Man and Yogi Berra, to kids playing sandlot ball, The Saturday Evening Post knew no equal when it came to great baseball covers.
Not only did these St. Louis kids have to miss school (awww!), they had to sit and pose with Stan the Man Musial. What a rough life. The lucky youngsters wound up with forty Musial autographs. “Wow!” one said in awe. “Will we clean up selling these at school!” We’re sure at least one of them has wished he’d kept it.
Who doesn’t love Yogi Berra? Long before he became famous for maiming the English language, Berra was catcher for the New York Yankees. Artist Earl Mayan got him to pose in Yankee Stadium for this cover. Love the fan faces! The editors informed us they were friends of the artist and “were real nice-looking people till he asked them to look like baseball fans.”
While we admire the pros, there’s nothing like a family baseball game. It’s 1950 and Uncle Baldy can’t decide whether to pitch or throw to Aunt Sally in the yellow dress on second base and catch the guy out. We have to say Aunt Martha’s batter’s stance is interesting. The editors speculated that the umpire was selected “because he has a natural chest protector”. Well, a natural belly protector, anyway.
It’s no surprise that they played baseball in 1910, as we see in this cover. What surprised us was the artist – none other than Anton Otto Fischer. Mostly famous for his masted ships rolling over foaming waves, Fischer also was great at painting people. This slice-of-landlubber-life captures the action perfectly. Interesting catcher’s mitt!
Artist John Clymer was known for his beautiful landscapes. Sure, he manages here to paint Oregon in all its spring glory, pink blooms, Mount Hood and all. But the eye is drawn here to the fine pitching form of Miss Pigtails and the concentration of the batter. The trees may be budding and the grass greening, but kids’ thoughts turn to baseball. It must be spring!
Descriptions by Diana Denny.
Have the doldrums? These illustrations of schooners and sloops will buoy your spirits in no time.
Illustrator George Gibbs was also an author, having written more than 50 books. Most of his books fell into the the spy and adventure genres, making him a perfect fit to paint this cover to accompany Cyrus Townsend Brady’s story. Gibbs was the illustrator of the first color cover of the Saturday Evening Post, which was published on December 30, 1899.
This cover by an unknown artist was drawn a year after sailing first debuted at the Olympics, in Paris, France in 1900. A Swiss sailor at the games, Hélène de Pourtalès, was the first ever female Gold medalist of the modern Olympic era, according to sailing.org.
Artist Eugene Iverd grew up in Minnesota, giving him plenty of opportunities to observe ice boating. Iverd was known for painting indelible childhood moments of kids around the campfire, on the football field, in the swimming pool, or on a windswept, frozen lake.
Anton Otto Fischer painted hundreds of covers and interior illustrations for the Post. He also illustrated books such as Moby Dick, Treasure Island, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
This Fischer illustration beautifully captures a moment of drama and also serves as a metaphor for the encroachment of the industrial age over the old ways.
This illustration by Norman Rockwell is a departure from his typical “slice-of-America” scenes.
Artist Gordon Grant was well known for his maritime covers, particularly his watercolor of the USS Constitution. He was also the cover designer for the first edition of the Boy Scout Handbook in 1911.
Charles Chickering got his start as a medical illustrator of the wounded and dead during the World War I, and went on to a career as a postage stamp designer, before painting this winsome cover for the Post.
Ski Weld’s covers always depicted action – skiers jumping, snow geese flying, or, in this case, a stunning regatta of boats sailing.
Dale Nichols was best known for his paintings of red barns in rural, Midwestern landscapes. This northern scene was a departure from his usual subject matter.
Artist Richard Sargent (1911-1979) painted 47 Post covers between 1951 and 1962, when photographs were rapidly replacing magazine illustrations. Sargent often used a playful narrative style where one picture did indeed express a thousand words.
The marine paintings of Anton Otto Fischer (1882-1962) capture the nuances of sea life that only an active participant could recreate. An orphan boy born in Germany, Fischer ran away to sea at the tender age of 16, spending eight years on a variety of sailing ships. Deciding to seek citizenship in the United States, he spent some time in the New York area as part of a hands-on crew racing yachts.
Covers by Anton Otto Fischer
Purchase prints of Anton Otto Fischer’s work at Art.com.
He worked as a model and handyman for the illustrator, A.B. Frost, which sparked Fischer’s interest in a career as an artist. He enrolled in the Académie Julian in Paris under Jean Paul Laurens. Upon returning to the US, he painted pictures based upon his sailing career and was quickly offered an assignment from Harper’s Weekly. From that point forward he was in constant demand with his longest and most fruitful association being with The Saturday Evening Post where he illustrated the “Tugboat Annie” stories by Norman Reilly Raines.
Anton Otto Fischer’s illustrations from “Tugboat Annie” series, by Norman Reilly Raine
In 1942 he was given the rank of Lieutenant Commander as “Artist Laureate” for the United States Coast Guard. Fischer’s dramatic series of pictures portraying his experience aboard the cutter “Campbell” was published in Life magazine and gained him great notoriety.
In response to our online feature on Anton Otto Fischer, an artist known for his stunning seascapes, a reader e-mailed us the following question regarding a Fischer painting in her collection:
“On the back it is labeled ‘A Goboto Night.’ Do you have any information about this painting?”
Well, the words “Goboto Night” meant nothing to us when we first read your question. But for form’s sake, we referred to the archives, where we found a handwritten index card in flowing script by a long-forgotten clerk: “ ‘A Goboto Night,’ by Jack London” (no less) and the date: September 30, 1911. We retrieved the old issue, and sure enough, the story (which you can read below) was illustrated by Anton Otto Fischer.
In the story about the island Goboto, we see a small black & white illustration. Four men are sitting around a table by the sea. The caption reads, “Life at Goboto is Heated, Unhealthy and Lurid.”
Then the painting’s owner, Susan Geer-Smith, e-mailed us a photo to confirm, and the illustration came to life before our eyes! Flesh tones, blue sea, Anton Otto Fischer’s signature multimasted ship in the background. It’s a beauty.
So how did Susan end up with a painting that illustrated a 1911 Saturday Evening Post story? About 12 years ago, her mother purchased a realty company and remembered the painting being there for at least 20 years. Susan herself started working there about three years ago. “I found it in a closet and fell in love with it, Susan remembers. “When I asked my mother about it, she told me to take it …” The painting had simply been there from as long ago as anyone could remember. How it got from the artist to The Saturday Evening Post to the offices of a realty company that began in 1916 remains a mystery.
If you have a painting that you suspect is affiliated with a Saturday Evening Post story, we’d love to hear from you. It’s a delight seeing an original black and white illustration as the artwork it was meant to be. Fischer alone did hundreds of illustrations for the Post.
Thank you, Susan, for letting us ogle your painting. Oh, and if you know anything about a painting by Fischer that shows “a man pointing a gun at eight other angry men in a boat,” let us know. Another reader is looking for that one. E-mail: [email protected].
P.S.: Goboto is a fictional island where traders come off their schooners and “assume shoes, white duck trousers and various other appearances of civilization.” At this questionably progressive place “mail is received, bills are paid, and newspapers, rarely more than five weeks old, are accessible.” This is “A Goboto Night” by Jack London, published in The Saturday Evening Post on September 30, 1911.
Like many prominent Post cover artists, Anton Otto Fischer, noted for his stunning seascapes, did work between the magazine’s covers as well. Fischer illustrated well over 400 stories for the Post. So associated is he with resplendent masted ships and sailboats on choppy waves (where the observer can almost taste the salt air), one tends to forget he painted characters as well as sea scenes for the Cappy Ricks stories beginning in 1915, the Mr. Glencannon series beginning in 1930, and Tugboat Annie, 1931. He confessed his favorite character was “that old reprobate Glencannon,” with the big broom moustache.
U.S. Navy Commander Lincoln Lothrop had once written to the artist: “My two lads, one of whom is now a twenty-two-year-old lieutenant in the Navy … used to cut out your pictures and pin them on the walls of their rooms. … You are responsible for recruiting many a seagoing lad.” They must have been brave lads, for Fischer’s paintings not only depicted the majestic beauty of the oceans, but the terrors they held as well.
Fischer was invited to lunch one day by none other than Vice Admiral Russell Waesche, Commandant of the Coast Guard for the purpose of recruiting. The January 9, 1943, Post describes it thus: “Did the admiral know that he was an anti-New Dealer? The admiral didn’t know—or care. But did the admiral know that he was born in Germany? Oh, yes, the admiral knew that, all right; his record had been checked.
“That record included, among other things, the fact that young Fischer had come to America as a deck hand on a German vessel, that he sacrificed two months’ pay to obtain his freedom, and then sailed on American ships for three years.”
By late that same afternoon, Fischer was sworn in as a lieutenant commander in the Coast Guard. “His duties? Putting on canvas some of the heroic deeds of our Merchant Mariners and Coast Guardsmen—the least-publicized men, perhaps, in all of our armed forces.”
This called for a wartime sacrifice at The Saturday Evening Post. Concluded the 1943 story, “and that is why Fischer’s glorious living seascapes will be out of the Post for the duration.”
Also known for illustrating books such as Moby Dick, Treasure Island, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Anton Otto Fischer died far from his beloved coastlines in the Catskill Mountains of Woodstock, New York, in 1962 at the age of 70.