If you were to ask most people to name the most successful American illustrator of the first half of the 20th Century, who was a classically trained artist and master craftsman, who was in large part responsible for the popular image we have of Santa Claus, who created the notion of using a baby to represent the New Year in illustrations, whose productive career spanned 50 years, who basically invented the look of 20th Century magazine cover design, and who painted more Saturday Evening Post covers than any other artist — the answer would invariably be “Norman Rockwell”, an answer that would just as invariably be wrong.
In fact, this is a description of Joseph Christian Leyendecker, whose position of relative modern obscurity compared to Rockwell just boggles my mind. Leyendecker was a fantastic illustrator whose paintings are marvels of design, draughtsmanship and the beautifully controlled application of color.
At a time when illustrators of his stature were treated like current day rock stars, Leyendecker led a very private life, perhaps to keep his relationship with Charles Beach, his model, manager, assistant and companion, out of the public eye. His creations became stars in their own right, though.
Leyendecker’s most famous illustrations were the series he created for Arrow Shirts featuring the “Arrow Collar Man”, an elegantly dapper guy who received thousands of fan letters and marriage proposals from swooning women, and who set standards for what was considered a masculine ideal at the time (sort of a male version of the Gibson Girl). The campaign was notable as being one of the first to deliberately sell a “lifestyle” instead of just a product.
Leyendecker also set new standards for illustration art. He and his brother Frank X. Leyendecker, also a terrific and under-appreciated illustrator, studied in Paris at the famed Académie Julian when William Bouguereau, the Academician’s Academician and a superb painter, was its director. They attracted much attention even then as talented art students among the best in Europe, in sharp contrast to their current lack of attention. Frank receives even less attention than Joseph, apparently in his brother’s shadow in posterity as well as in life.
Norman Rockwell was a great admirer of Leyedecker, who he considered the ideal for which he aimed when he began doing Post covers. He eventually became friends with the Leyendecker brothers and a chapter in his autobiography is one of the few personal accounts that exist from those who knew them.
Leyendecker had a tremendous impact on other illustrators. His work is dazzling in its technical proficiency, beautifully composed and designed, and drawn with the kind of flair and refined skill that only comes to the best of the best. He would make the application of paint (supposedly with a secret proprietary oil painting medium) appear as part of the design, with strokes of color defining the form in his paintings the way hatching is used in drawings, and often allowing parts of the underpainting show through.
He was also a genius for finding “the straight within the curved”, and his figures have a sharp, crisp geometry that makes them really snap. Seemingly simple things like folds in cloth became wonders of painted design, zig-zagging valleys of carefully controlled color, highlighted with those amazing strokes of color hatching.
Leyendecker reportedly worked in stages, creating many small-scale studies from which he would then construct the whole using the traditional technique of “squaring up” to transfer to the larger canvas. The American Art Archives site has a great page of his studies that is not to be missed by anyone interested in the techniques of one of the great illustrators.
I mentioned Leyendecker in my post on Thanksgiving two days ago and Shane White left a comment about a current Leyendecker show I wasn’t aware of. For those fortunate enough to live within reach, there is a Leyendecker exhibit titled J. C. Leyendecker: America’s “Other” Illustrator, at The Haggin Museum in Stockton, California that continues through the end of December.
J.C Schau’s monograph J. C. Leyendecker (cover shown at left, bottom) is long out of print, as is The J. C. Leyendecker Collection: American Illustrators Poster Book by Frederic B. Taraba, though you may be able to find them with used book searches through Amazon and elsewhere. There is a good chapter on Leyendecker in Susan E. Meyer’s America’s Great Illustrators, a terrific book that can be found used for under $15. If nothing else, look for them in libraries so you can get a feeling for how great his work looks in print.
I’ve assembled what resources I can find for you below. American Art Archives is the best, but I would love to know of others I may have missed. Maybe if enough interest is generated from the show, and a little buzz gets going on the web, we might be able to convince a publisher to cough up a new book on this fantastic and amazingly underappreciated artist.