Ralph Lewis Nelson was born February 1, 1885 in Coal City, Illinois. His father, Hugh A. Nelson, was born 1856 in Indiana. His mother, Nellie Pardee, was born 1862 in Illinois. She was also an artist and was one-half Native American. His parents married in 1884. He was their first born. His younger brother Erwin was born two years later in February 1887. The lived in a small house over a coal mine, where his father was a dealer in coal.
Two years later his mother had a difficult birth of her third child, a daughter named Nellie Nelson, who was born June 12, 1889 and died six days later. His mother failed to recover from the complicated delivery and died from blood poisoning six weeks later on August 31, 1889. She was twenty-seven years old.
At the time of her death Ralph was four and Erwin was two. Their father was not able to care for the children, so they were sent to live with his parents on the family farm in Newville, Indiana, where the boys were raised by their grandparents, John and Eliza Nelson. They had raised seven children, two of whom never married and lived at home. Uncle Henry William Nelson, born 1853, was thirty-six and worked on his father's farm. Aunt Nancy Cecelia Nelson, born 1862, was twenty-seven, and helped her mother with housekeeping. This aunt and uncle became surrogate parents for the two infant brothers.
Two years later in 1891 their biological father, Hugh Nelson, married a second wife, Rosa Nelson, who was born 1870 in Illinois. Their daughter Hazel was born in 1892.
Ralph Nelson attended local public school and showed an early inclination towards art. After graduating high school in 1903 attended Baptist College at Kalamazoo, Michigan, where he received his first formal art training.
In 1905 when dealing coal became a struggle for Hugh Nelson he and his wife and daughter moved to his parents' farm in Indiana. By 1907 they have moved to Ohio to join Hugh's older brother, John W. Nelson, on his farm in Hicksville. Hugh Nelson became a farmer and invited his estranged sons to live with him to help with chores, although by this time Ralph was twenty-two and determined to become a professional artist.
In 1907 he moved to Des Moines, Iowa, where he was hired to work as a newspaper cartoonist. He also attended classes at the Des Moines School of Art.
In 1910 he moved to Cleveland Ohio, where he was employed as a staff artist at an engraving company that supplied line art for advertisements and illustrations to The Cleveland Press. He lived in a boarding house at 3855 Carnegie Avenue, where his roommate was another staff artist, Lewis Olds, who worked at the same engraving shop. In his spare time he studied at the Cleveland School of Art.
In 1916 he moved to Washington, DC, where he was hired to work for The Washington Star. He later worked for The Washington Times. In his spare time he studied at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C.
In 1918 during the Great War he served in the military, although he was thirty-three years old. He joined the US Marine Corps and was made Sergeant. He was stationed in Washington, DC, where he worked in an art department that produced illustrations for publicity and recruitment. According to family history, "He often talked about how he had actually designed and drew the iconic recruitment poster that featured Uncle Sam saying 'I WANT YOU!' He made it in collaboration with James Montgomery Flagg, who painted the finished version on top of Ralph Nelson's approved concept drawing. It bothered him that Flagg received all the credit for a joint project that he had designed."
After the war he moved to New York City and worked as a pen and ink artist for newspapers and advertising. He studied at the Art Students League of New York with Harvey Dunn, Dean Cornwell, and Walter Biggs.
Over the next five years his drawings and paintings appeared regularly as black and white story illustrations for adventure stories in Boy's Life and St. Nicholas Magazine. These were both wholesome juvenile entertainment magazines.
He illustrated hardcover books of fiction and slick magazines, such as Success and The Saturday Eening Post.
In 1924 he opened an art studio in NYC that was listed in a nationwide directory of commercial artists at 129 East 23rd Street. This was a professional studio building in which he Manhattan telephone directory of that time indicates that all five tenants were listed in the Manhattan telephone directory of the time as professional artists.
In 1926 he moved to another art studio at 16 West 8th Street in NYC, where he worked as a freelance pen-and-ink artist. He drew black and white story illustrations for pulp magazines, such as Clues Detective, Battle Stories, Western Story, and Sport Story. Most of this work was signed with a distinctive motif composed of his initials "RN"
On August 3, 1926 he married Bernice Pendleton Merrill in Manhattan Civil Court. She was born 1906 in Rhode Island, and worked in NYC as a teacher at the Y.W.C.A. They moved to 543 West 125th Street in Harlem. This high-rise apartment building was on the Western shore of Manhattan with a spectacular view of the Hudson River.
By 1932 he had moved to a home at RD2, off the Danbury Turnpike, in Wilton, Connecticut. His neighbors included the artists McClelland Barclay and Leland Gustavson. His daughter Carolyn Cecelia Nelson was born on August 24, 1933. She was their only child.
During the Great Depression he worked for the WPA mural project, an enlightened government program that sponsored employment of artists for creative public works projects. Ralph Nelson painted murals for more than a dozen public spaces in Connecticut, including Wethersfield, Wallingford, East Hartford, as well as the Town Hall of New Canaan. Many other notable artists worked on WPA murals, such as Delos Palmer, George Avison and W. Herbert Dunton.
His wife's family history dated back to the Mayflower and included several descendants who were politicians and magistrates in state government. In the fall of 1939, with his wife's encouragement, he won the Democratic Party nomination for the political office of Wilton's Tax Collector. Luckily a Republican candidate won the election and he was free to pursue his art career. He later ran for Connecticut State Representative and again narrowly lost.
By 1941 he had moved to Guild Hollow Road in Bethlehem, CT.
On April 27, 1942 he reported for draft registration during WWII. He was recorded at the time to be five-seven, 145 pounds, blue eyes, gray hair, light complexion, and with a "small scar on forehead." He was fifty-seven years old. His wartime production job was a factory worker at the American Brass Company, 126 Robbins Street in Waterbury, CT. At this same time his wife worked as a factory foreman at the Timex watch company.
During the war he volunteered as an artist for the Army Corps of Engineers. One of his projects was to design three-part folding screens, five feet high by six feet wide, painted with religious decorations, which were used as portable makeshift alters for frontline Sunday services.
After the War he worked for the Bethlehem Greeting Card Company, as well as the Hallmark Card Company of Kansas City, Missouri. He painted landscapes and was active in local art fairs and art events. During the summer months he held hi own art shows on his property and displayed paintings along the roadside.
According to the artist's grandson, Matang Gonzales, who is also a professional illustrator, "When my grandfather came up north to Bethlehem, Connecticut, his career in illustration ended for the most part. His studio was an 1819 blacksmith shop, and after he passed away, it became my father's art studio, and now mine. My grandfather had glaucoma and he continued to paint even as his vision became more compromised. The winter landscapes painted in his later years become very blue and violet as a result of his failing vision."
By 1957 he was legally blind, and by 1962 he was almost totally blind. Curiously, this condition did not hinder his creative spirit or stop him form painting. He continued to paint even though his eyesight continued to fail.
Ralph Nelson died in Bethlehem, CT, at the age of eighty-two on May 7, 1967.
© David Saunders 2012