Friday, July 4, 2008


J. C. Leyendecker, American artist and illustrator
Author: Unidentified photographer

This "J.C.LEYENDECKER" is the first of what I hope to be a regular article featuring an artist (living or dead) that I think everyone ought to know about. Illustration happens to be my area of focus, but I’m keeping the criteria wide open. Ideally this will be a way for me to learn about new artists as well.
The first featured artist is a ghost of illustration’s past, Joseph Christian Leyendecker (1874-1951). J.C.Leyendecker’s long and illustrious career is so damned interesting, I’m not quite sure where to begin. He was personally very shy and something of a recluse. His brother Frank was also an incredibly talented artist, though eventually overshadowed by his big brother.
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 people, 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. Leyendecker was a fantastic illustrator whose paintings are marvels of design, draughtsmanship and the beautifully controlled application of color.J.C. Leyendecker was among the first artists to create the modern magazine cover that functions as a separately engaging art piece. His 40 year stint painting covers for The Saturday Evening Post made him among the most known artists of his time, and inspired some guy named Norman Rockwell to the point of stalker obsession. Rockwell went so far as moving to the same block that Leyendecker lived on, just to be closer to his idol (who undoubtably influenced the great American illustrator’s every brush stroke).






And like many of his contemporaries, he demonstrated early talent that was nurtured by his parents. In 1889 he completed what education he was to get. His family was unable to pay for further education in the arts, so Leyendecker apprenticed himself at the age of 15 to J. Manz & Co., a Chicago engraving house. He took art lessons in the evenings at the Chicago Art Institute. One of his primary instructors there was John H. Vanderpoel, whose books on anatomy are still being sought after today.
In September 1896 he left Chicago to study in Paris for two years at the Academie Julian and Colorossi's, two of that city's most celebrated art schools. He was accompanied by his younger brother, Frank (1877-1924), who was sent along by their parents not only to study, but also to provide their elder son companionship. It was along the Parisian streets, ablaze with the vibrant poster art of Jules Cherét (1836-1933), Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939), and Henri de Toulouse Lautrec (1864-1901), that Leyendecker came to the realization that a talented artist could gain both critical acclaim and monetary rewards as a commercial illustrator. It was to that end that he now turned his attention. Over the next half century he seldom deviated from his decision to pursue a career in commercial art.
The Leyendecker brothers returned to Chicago in the summer of 1897 where they opened a joint studio. The following year J. C. Leyendecker did his first cover artwork for Collier's magazine; over the next ten years he would produce forty seven more. Just before the turn-of-the-century, he received a commission to produce an image for the cover of The Saturday Evening Post. This rather undistinguished image that illustrated a story on the Spanish American War for the Post's May 20 issue was the first of 322 covers he would produce for the magazine between 1899 and 1943.
The Leyendecker brothers moved to New York in 1900 and five years later J. C. Leyendecker received what was arguably his most important commission. He was hired by Cluett, Peabody & Company to develop a series of images to help sell its Arrow Brand shirt collars. Leyendecker's "Arrow Collar Men," as well as the images he was also soon creating for Kuppenheimer Suits and Interwoven Socks, came to define the fashionable American male during the early decades of the 20th century. The "Arrow Collar Men" received more fan mail from women and young girls than most film and stage actors of the day. Leyendecker's models for these images included the likes of Fredric March, Brian Donlevy and Jack Mulhall-all of whom would later gain fame as film stars. His favorite model, however, was Howard Beach, the man who became his life companion. Beach first posed for Leyendecker in 1901 and was the first of his "Arrow Collar Men".
Another important commission for Leyendecker was from Kellogg's, the breakfast food manufacturer. As part of a major advertising campaign, he created a series of 20 "Kellogg's Kids" to promote Kellogg's Corn Flakes. These images of babies, small children, and teenagers are as winsome and winning today as when they were created over 90 years ago.
Joseph was working for national publications like Colliers and The Saturday Evening Post and the Chicago studio was exchanged for one in New York, the hub of the magazine industry. From there he poured forth an amazing quantity of illustrations, covers and advertisements. The new ability to reproduce color illustrations was taking the magazine industry by storm and they competed strongly for works that merited the expense. Leyendecker was what we'd call today a "hot property" as his paintings sold magazines and books, and publishers wanted more than just a cover.
During both world wars, Leyendecker lent his talents to this nation's war effort. From 1917-19 he created posters to support various war bond drives, promote fuel conservation, and encourage enlistment in the different branches of the armed services. After the United States entered World War II in 1941, he created a series of war bond posters featuring American military leaders.
In his lifetime, Joseph Christian Leyendecker (1874-1951) created 48 cover paintings for Collier’s magazine and 322 covers for Saturday Evening Post, more than even Norman Rockwell. His work over the years also included advertising campaigns with illustrations for Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, Arrow shirts, and Kuppenheimer menswear. His popularity was due to his ability to convey in paintings the essence of both everyday life and international events. His unique sense of drama, romanticism, and humor captured America’s imagination.


Easter Hunt

Easter Walk



Leyendecker's art was always immediately recognizable after 1905. He developed a distinctive brush technique and a unique use of highlights within shadows. Some of his originals appear almost unfinished because he let the underpainting show through to represent the brightest highlights. He 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. 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.

New Year Ticket




Statue of Liberty

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. His painting style is unmistakably his own, shockingly and timelessly modern. His observant shaping, exaggerated anatomy, animated gestures and highly expressive brush strokes will continue to influence and inspire illustrators forever.


Uncle Sam

Leyendecker's popularity at the Post was due to his ability to convey the essence of everyday life in America through artwork that reflected his unique sense of drama, romanticism, and humor. Another key to his commercial success was his distinctive style, which combined bright colors with bold, heavy brushwork.

Horse Girl



Marching Band

New Year Stocks

In 1943, the editorship of the Post changed and the new editor felt that Leyendecker was too strongly associated with the "old" magazine. So goes 40 years of a mutually satisfying relationship. Joe had to go looking for work. He found it, but not in the quantity he was used to. He maintained his palatial home in New Rochelle, but had to let the servants go. Alas. The tail end of Leyendecker’s career was rocky at best, as he struggled to secure the work that had come so effortlessly throughout his entire career. Rockwell became the new face of the Saturday Evening Post, and Joseph slipped into obscurity. He later died of a heart attack, and his Saturday Evening Post paintings were sold for $75 each by his sister. Something to look forward to kids, becoming the most famous artist of your time, only to die frustrated and forgotten. Yay!

Even if he hadn't been a great artist, J.C. Leyendecker would have won awards for his marvelous signature.

Information Supplied by Traditional Fine Arts Org.Inc

Images of SEP Covers: Courtesy of Andrew Bosley
Other Images: Courtesy of SEP

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