Sunday, October 7, 2007

J.C. Leyendecker: America’s “Other” Illustrator

J.C. Leyendecker: America's Other Illustrator
J.C Leyendecker: America’s “Other” Illustrator is the title of an exhibition organized by the Haggin Museum in Stockton, California and currently on view at the City of Fullerton Museum in Fullerton, CA.

I’ve raved about Leyendecker before, and will continue to do so; both because I can’t resist the opportunity to post more of his amazing work, and because I continue to be baffled by the fact that his name is not a household word and that our kitchens are not lined with his calendars and our coffee tables not weighted down with mammoth books showcasing his work.

The obvious comparison is with Norman Rockwell, of course; and, while I certainly admire Rockwell, I hold Leyendecker in even higher esteem, and feel that his relative obscurity is a monumental oversight; as if, among Surrealists, Magritte was famous and Dali unknown. Rockwell himself was tremendously influenced by Leyendecker, and referred to him as “one of my gods”, setting him up as the mark for which he aimed his own accomplishments.

Sadly, the bookstore shelves are not bending under the weight of Leyendecker books, as they should be. There isn’t even a major one in print, though you can find some older ones if you search.

Exhibitions of Leyendecker’s work have been rare, but more attention is being paid to him lately, and shows like this one are welcome events. The exhibit started at the Haggin, traveled to the R.W. Norton Art Gallery and is now at the Fullerton. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find out where it will go next or if there are any scheduled stops on the East coast. (If anyone knows, I would appreciate the information.)

The Haggin’s own collection of over 50 original Leyendeckers, the largest collection of his works held by any museum, includes many uncommon subjects and unusual pieces, such as ink and wash drawings, military portraits and recruitment posters, and a wonderful assortment of kids eating Kellog’s cereal (image above).

I don’t know how much of the Haggin’s collection is included in the traveling exhibit, but you can see some of it displayed on their site, along with a more detailed description of the exhibition and an overview of the artist and his work. The site also includes a Quicktime Movie of an illustrated lecture about the artist by the museum’s director, Tod Ruhstaller (linked under the box containing the photo of Joe and Frank Leyendecker in Paris).

There is also a description and overview on Traditional Fine Arts Organization.

Unfortunately (perhaps deliberately), the images on the Haggin site are shot with odd angles and lenses, leaving them out of square, as in the image above.

Any Leyendecker is good Leyendecker, however, and I’ll continue to find any excuse I can to post his beautiful illustrations.

For more on Leyendecker, and links to other resources, see my previous articles listed below.

[Link via ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Archive]

10 thoughts on “J.C. Leyendecker: America’s “Other” Illustrator

  1. Ginger Pena

    Thanks for all your updates, Charlie! I visit your site often, but this is the first time for a comment.

    I recently checked a book about Leyendecker out of my local library and was surprised to read that although Norman Rockwell looked up to J.C. Leyendecker early on, later he became disenchanted with him. There just isn’t much information on Leyendecker’s personal life since he was so reclusive, and I surmise that Rockwell’s disenchantment stemmed from his frustrated desire to get to know J. C. There’s also a hint that perhaps Leyendecker was gay since his closest companion was another man. I think Rockwell thought so because he criticised J.C.’s illustrations of women for their dispassionate coldness: A quality I think he imagined, because I don’t see that.

    Mostly, I think Leyendecker’s lack of continued popularity is just due to his reclusiveness, although Rockwell’s later comments didn’t help. He was never accessible, never experimented with other styles, never promoted his work except to publishers. And his work almost seems inhuman: It’s just too good.

    Maybe there’s a lesson in this for all us artists? Great work isn’t enough – although that’s the place to start from and the goal I keep working toward – One needs to promote the work and become an accessible personality for the public to connect with.

  2. Nail

    (Another long-time lurker’s 1st comment…)

    I went to the exhibition last weekend – pretty much all paintings showing on Haggin’s website were included. It was a great experience, there were more people than I expected, the crowd loved his works and I was surprised that some visitors knew about Leyendecker very well. All the prints I’ve seen before did not do him justice…the originals were stunning to look at.

  3. Charley Parker Post author

    Thank you both for contributing to the discussion. I appreciate it.

    I think it’s well established that Leyendecker was gay, which may explain his desire to keep out of the public eye at the time, but I don’t think that accounts for his relative obscutiry compared to Rockwell.

    Perhaps it is actually the sophistication of his work that made it less accessible to middle America after the war, or possibly accociation of the recognizable style of his work with a particular era.

    I can see where criticisms of coldness might come from, he was so overwhelmingly facile, and his technique was so dazzling that it could overpower the subject matter.

    I really hope the show comes east, but I appreciate having a report on it.

  4. Brian

    Compared to Rockwell’s later work, Leyendecker’s work was indeed a bit cold. JC used people as design elements in his work, which is one the reasons his compositions are so strong. As an example, think of Rockwell’s SEP cover where the two cleaning ladies are looking over the theater program–that’s a highly sympathetic theme. I don’t see anything like that in JC’s work, although I love his stuff like everybody else.

    Outside of Maxfield Parrish, Rockwell, and maybe a couple of others, none of the great golden Age illustrators is well known today. I don’t think that Leyendecker’s reclusiveness has anything to do with his realtive obscurity–it didn’t hurt him in his prime. Its just that the general public has moved on to television and movies for visual entertainment. Their loss.

    The Cutler’s, who own the Museum of American Illustration in Rhode Island, are working on a catalog raisonne of Leyendecker’s work. How long that will take to come out is hard to tell, but probably ten years at the most, five at the least. Anyway, way too long. I love the work, and I wish I could see the show. Nice post.

  5. Li-An

    I find his work very modern. It’s clean and sharp and very efficient. This qualities were maybe not appreciated in the 50’s/70’s but I think it could have a nice come back.

  6. Richard

    I’m reading Norman Rockwell’s autobiography right now and he has nothing but nice things to say about Leyendecker and his brother Frank. He says that it was JC’s natural reclusiveness and the “wall” that his male companion and business partner created between JC and the rest of the world that destroyed his talent. He also blames JC’s need for money that prevented him from taking challenging, but less lucrative illustration jobs.
    He says: “Now that Joe isolated himself from life, his work became even emptier than before. You can’t do human interest pictures from an ivory tower.”
    The way he writes about it, it all sounds very tragic. Both JC and his brother Frank died sad deaths and almost no one came to their funerals.

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