J. Allen St. John lived the majority of his creative life at
3 E. Ontario, Chicago, IL in a building named Tree Studio. Tree Studio
was built especially for artists by Judge Lambert Tree, with the intention
that every unit would provide the proper light by which the painter could
J. Allen St. John resided and worked in the large street level
apartment/studio which was comprised of two floors. It was only one of
four such spaciously-designed units. The rest of the spaces were mainly
small studios, all with skylights. When he died there in 1957, his widow
continued to live at that location until she left for a nursing home in
the late 1970s.
It is at this point that my friend Jim Romano came to move into the
sacred J. Allen St. John studio, where he remained until Tree Studios was
redeveloped around 2000. There were only two tenants ever in the St. John
studio - Mr. St. John and Jim (two Dum-Dum meetings were held in this studio
in the '90s which I was fortunate to attend). Being himself a commercial
artist, he became acquainted with Mrs. St. John since he was her neighbor
for years in the same complex. Upon moving in he purchased from her many
items that were still left in the studio.
One such item was a painting that had hung above the fireplace for decades.
I've never heard anyone in the ERB community speak of it or even acknowledge
its existence. Not even J. Allen St. John scholars. Yet here it is. A magnificent
self-portrait of J. Allen St. John in oil on canvas measuring 25" x 30"
housed in a wonderful frame.
On the back of the frame is a paper note stating it was exhibited in
the Association of Chicago Painters and Sculptors Exhibition. It mentions
the artist: J. Allen St. John, address: 3 East Ontario Street, and title:
Self Portrait, with nothing listed for price. To the right of it in the
wood frame is a somewhat crudely carved "J. Allen St. John".
Now comes the inexplicable part of it. There is absolutely no doubt
it is a young Mr. St. John, yet the painting is signed what I believe to
read M. NICHOLS. According to Jim, Mrs. St. John told him that it was painted
by her husband. It is dated 1895 under the name lower right, a time when
he was acknowledged to have been a student at the Art Students League of
This fits in perfectly when you look at the accompanying photo of J.
Allen St. John in which he is apparently standing with his colleagues at
the studio. He looks to be wearing the same smock and palette as in the
To see this painting in person, there is no doubt that it was painted
by a very, very accomplished artist. Yet there does not appear to be any
record of an artist named Nichols around that time. Anyone that good most
likely would have gone on to make a name for themselves or become listed.
That leads us to believe that this portrait actually was done by St. John,
and for whatever reasons signed it Nichols. Keep in mind that the label
on the back states unequivocally that there exists a painting titled SELF-PORTRAIT
by J. Allen St. John.
At this time Jim has regrettably decided it is time to part with the
work of art and he wishes to sell it. Please, serious inquiries only on
buying, but I welcome any ideas or comments on this. I can be reached at