James Allen St. John was born October 1, 1872 in Chicago. His friends called him "Jim St. John." His father, Dr. Jospehus Allen St. John, was born 1831 in East Hubbarston, Vermont. The St. John family moved to Janesville, Wisconsin in 1837, where they were among the first settlers in the region. They worked a family farm and eventually sent their son Josephus to college, where he studied Allopathic Medicine and became a physician. The artist's mother, Susan Hely, was born 1834 in Ireland. Her father Hilliard Hely (1800-1858) had been a portrait painter and graduate of Dublin's Trinity College. In 1937 her family moved to America and also settled in Janesville, Wisconsin, where they also worked a family farm. In his spare time Susan Hely's father painted portraits and taught his daughter to paint, but she yearned for academic art training.
In 1859 her older brother, George Hely, married Eliza St. John, the older sister of Josephus St. John. That same year Susan and Josephus also married. By 1870 they had moved to Chicago and lived at 311 22nd Street, where Josephus had a private medical practice and Susan attended the Art Institute of Chicago.
The artist's mother was a free spirit. She loved art school and enjoyed the company of Bohemians. She invited two women artists to board at their home. According to the artist, "My first recollections are of my mother's art studio and the magic way the eyes of her portraits followed me as I walked about the place."
In 1880 his mother left his father and moved to Paris to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. She brought her eight-year-old son. They lived in Europe for three years, where visits to the great museums made him want to become a painter.
In 1883 at the age of eleven he and his mother returned to America. She decided to continue her studies at the National Academy of Design in New York City, so his supportive father closed up shop in Chicago and moved to a Manhattan townhouse at 231 West 69th Street, where he opened a new medical practice and their son attended public school.
By 1877 his mother completed her training and opened her own portrait studio in the family home.
In 1888 James Allen St. John quit school after completing the eight grade. At that time this was the most common practice. Although he was privileged to attend prep school and ivy league college, he preferred to become an artist. He did not want to enter the work force and he rejected his father's offer to finance his own trading company.
In 1888 at the age of sixteen he left NYC and moved to California to live with his wealthy uncle George Hely, Aunt Eliza St. John Hely, and his three cousins, James, Guy, and Levi St. John Hely, on their two-thousand acre grain and livestock ranch in San Joaquin Valley of Southern California. There he painted landscapes and studied with Eugene Torrey (1862-1930), an acquaintance of his mother's from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, who was based in Los Angeles as a landscape painter.
In 1891 at the age of nineteen he returned to NYC to live with his parents and study with William Merritt Chase (1849-1916) at the Art Students league.
His first published illustrations were for The New York Herald in 1898, where he continued to work for several years. This exposure led to illustrating several novels.
In 1901 his parents moved back to Chicago, so he remained in NYC and opened his own art studio at 393 Eighth Avenue, near 30th Street, just two blocks south of Pennsylvania Station.
By 1902 at age thirty he was an established illustrator, landscape painter, and portrait artist in NYC.
In 1903 his father became ill, so he closed his art studio and moved back to Chicago to live with his parents and help his mother care for his father.
On April 19, 1904 his father died in Chicago at the age of seventy-two.
He began to work as a commercial artist for publishers in the Chicago mid-western region. He illustrated books, newspapers and magazines. In 1904 he illustrated The Face in the Pool for A. C. McClurg Company of Chicago, which led to his important association with this publisher.
He met Ellen May Munger while learning to type at a secretarial school. She was born July 21, 1884 in Illinois. They married on November 11, 1905.
In 1908 at the age of 36 he returned to Paris, France, with his wife, where he studied for two year at the Academie Julian.
In 1910 he and his wife returned to Chicago and lived with his widowed mother. On October 25, 1913 Susan Hely St. John died at the age of seventy-nine.
In 1913 he and his wife moved to 3 East Ontario Street in Chicago. This remarkable three-story building, known as "The Tree Studio," was designed with living and working areas for resident artists. The St. John's lived on the ground floor, which also included a picturesque private garden.
In 1915 he illustrated chapter headings for The Return of Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs for McClurg Publishing. The dust-jacket was painted by N. C. Wyeth. In 1916 he drew the story illustrations as well as the dust-jacket cover for The Beasts of Tarzan. This was the first of many painted covers for Tarzan books, for which the artist is most renowned.
In 1917 he began to teach Painting and Illustration classes at the Art Institute of Chicago. He continued to teach for the rest of his life.
In 1917 at the age of forty-six he was too old to serve in The Great War. He produced several patriotic posters for recruitment and Liberty Bonds to support the war effort.
In the 1920s he illustrated stories for many of the top magazines, such as Colliers, The Rotarian, and Liberty. He also painted covers for The Green Book, The Red Book and Blue Book.
In 1928 he taught a painting class at the Businessmen's Art Association in Chicago, which was a private club for professional artists that worked for newspapers and advertising, but wanted to hone their skills, work from nude models, and enjoy weekend outings to paint landscapes and socialize with other professional artists.
During the years of the Great Depression he worked for Boy's World, Amazing Stories, Fantastic Adventures, Magic Carpet and Weird Tales.
In 1942 at the age of seventy he was too old for draft registration during WWII.
In the 1940s and the 1950s he worked for Amazing Stories, Fantastic Adventures, Fate, Other Worlds, and Mystic Magazine.
In the 1950s he taught Life Class and Illustration at the American Academy of Art in Chicago.
J. Allen St. John died at age eighty-four in Chicago on May 23, 1957.
© David Saunders 2012