Editor's note: The following article was reprinted in Resource Library on February 12, 2009 with permission of the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the author directly at Illustration House, 110 W. 25th St., New York, NY 10001 or:


J.C. Leyendecker: A Retrospective

by Roger T. Reed


In contract to Norman Rockwell, who bared his insecurities and struggles in an autobiography, Joseph Christian Leyendecker's persona always appeared as unflappable as one of his Arrow Collar Men -- flawlessly dressed and impeccably prompt. But the lives and art of the two great contemporaries were actually deeply intertwined. It is fitting, therefore, that the first serious retrospective of J. C. Leyendecker (1874 - 1951) should be launched at the Norman Rockwell Museum.

Leyendecker's technical skill and originality were beyond reproach, or even reach. His draughtsmanship was perfect, and his great speed could accelerate to meet deadlines. His secret paint formula and legendary aloofness added to a mystique that often seemed the stuff of myth.

Though Leyendecker was a magician with the paint brush, it would be uninstructive to compare him to other great painters of his era. His aims were not theirs. As a graphic designer, however, he was one of the greatest.

The advertisements and magazine covers Leyendecker created are strong, lean and logical, usually with a whimsical flavor and complemented by his flashy style. The final product was a buzzing latticework of juicy brushstrokes which belied their arduous preparation. As with good magicians, Leyendecker showed his audience only what he wanted them to see.

He is best known for his contribution to the development of the modern magazine cover, a miniature poster designed to engage the viewer, impart an idea, and sell an issue, all within a few seconds at the newsstand. Between 1896 and 1950, he painted more than 400 magazine covers, each compressing a complex narrative into a single graphical message. Leyendecker used this small format as a wide platform for expressing a cumulative portrait of his idealized America.

The few known details of his life stand in stark contrast to his self-spun myth. In person, Leyendecker was very shy and spoke with a stutter. He was homosexual in an era when exposure meant ruin. He lived as a recluse, locked in struggles of power and love in an ivory tower, and driven by impossible goals which eventually led to tragedy.

Norman Rockwell began his career as one of many imitators of Leyendecker, an influence and inspiration acknowledged in Rockwell's autobiography. Rockwell moved to New Rochelle, New York, just to be near his idol and authored a revealing account as one of few people to know J. C. well.

Leyendecker's Catholic family emigrated from Montabaur, Germany, to Chicago when he was eight. He showed a strong and early penchant for drawing, and at age fifteen was apprenticed to a printer, J. Manz and Co. Within a few years, he was studying under John Vanderpoel at the Chicago Art Institute and his illustrations began to be published.

In 1896, Leyendecker won The Century magazine cover competition and a commission to design a years' worth of the monthly covers for The Inland Printer. Leyendecker decided to study at the Colarossi and the Academie Julian in Paris. His younger brother, Francis Xavier, went with him.

The brothers spent little more than a year in France, but it was a highly influential time which cemented their close friendship. They learned the delicate and demanding "hachure" method of drawing from the academic masters, dominated by Bouguereau. Blended shading was not allowed. Forms had to be rendered by delicate vertical strokes or hatch marks of the pencil.

At this time, the poster renaissance was at its very height. J. C., in particular, must have been strongly impressed. By exposure to Alfonse Mucha's work on the streets, he could see that the same drawing method he was learning could be applied to graphic design. Once back in America, Leyendecker set to work thickening and jazzing up the hatch lines for commercial use.

To cross-hatch in oil paint, the brothers concocted a "secret formula" -- a mixture of oils and turpentine -- that was coveted by other artists. When mixed with paint, it enabled a slashing stroke without the brush going dry. It provided the speed and dexterity of pencil, with the graphic impact of color. The Leyendeckers were, essentially, drawing with paint.

Around this time, J. C. and Frank developed a credo to compel themselves to produce their best work on time: "Buy more than you can afford.... If every day you have to save yourself from ruin, every day you'll work." Rockwell noted that this belief favored output over quality, and caused J. C. to select lucrative commercial jobs over works that would enhance his long-term stature, such as murals.

When the brothers were young and on their way to success, the credo was an entertaining game, a race to outdo each other. Frank was an excellent artist in his own right, and briefly -- while executing a spectacular series of monthly covers for Collier's Weekly magazine from 1902 - 1905 -- the higher-profile of the two.

Comparisons between the two were inevitable. But Frank couldn't pull off the same technical sleights of hand as J. C. He sought to compensate, for instance, by obsessively rendering every knot of a lace sleeve. This caused him to work at a killing pace -- and J. C. was a formidable pace-setter.

Both brothers made and spent large sums, dwarfing the previous income benchmarks for illustrators. The culmination was the building of a mansion in New Rochelle with separate wings for each studio, elaborate landscaping with fountains and fish pools, and a staff to maintain it.

When J. C. raised the bar above Frank's reach, the destructive side of their credo emerged. Frank suffered migraines and started taking drugs; there were times when he couldn't work. Eventually their competitive bond split the brothers apart.

By 1910, J. C. had landed two advertising accounts which dictated the shape of his career beyond magazine covers: Kuppenheimer Clothes, and Arrow Collar. Couture was important to J. C. He had been producing a steady stream of fashion advertising since 1898.

Kuppenheimer and Arrow, however, were top brands with big budgets, and over twenty years they commissioned hundreds of advertising paintings from him. He began the Kuppenheimer campaign with a parade of men in suits, he then incorporated the models into plausible scenes of carefree young men, emphasizing collegiate sports. Evoking a youthful, virile atmosphere, J. C. laid a basic foundation for modern advertising -- the selling of "lifestyle."

For Arrow, Leyendecker forged a separate identity. He focused not on the collar, but the faces it framed. His renderings of clean-shaven, preppy and patrician young men inspired the thousands of romantic inquiries from women that flooded the Arrow Collar company.

The Depression finally ended these campaigns, but not before he had produced his most stunning pictures: a series for Arrow with black backgrounds that rank among the most elegant, seductive graphic design works ever executed.

The most important Arrow Man was Charles Beach. Tall, handsome, and as socially confident as Leyendecker was shy. Beach posed for dozens of paintings. He also served as Leyendecker's companion, later becoming his agent, publicist and manager, and even his public face. There is every indication that this relationship, which lasted from 1903 to the end of his life, freed Leyendecker to accomplish a huge amount of work.

Simultaneous with his advertising work, Leyendecker became the Saturday Evening Post's top cover artist, which landed him the holiday issues. For needed graphic punch, Leyendecker borrowed symbolic characters from the arsenal of the political cartoonists. He employed the Pilgrim and the Turkey to signify Thanksgiving, Uncle Sam for July Fourth, and beginning in 1906, the new born baby as emblem of the New Year, which became his own trademark.

His first "babies" were naturalistic young children. Later, he transformed them to ageless cartoon infants, acting out events to characterize the nation in its upcoming year: cutting the budgets, celebrating victory, etc.

Each published painting was the distilled product of a great amount of work. Once satisfied with his pencil sketch of an idea, Leyendecker would pose models in costume and directly paint oil on canvas, sketching the figures in various positions until the pose was just right.

As a point of pride, Leyendecker always worked with models, dismissing the use of photographic reference as a wrongheaded distraction. His sketches have a lively spontaneity; they also map his thought process. Some consider them better than the finished paintings.

No matter how well Leyendecker's preliminary figure sketches came out, he always painted a more refined final version after the model was dismissed. This method allowed him to extract the essence of the figure, to change it from a person into a personage. Not only holiday symbols, but every character Leyendecker used underwent his refinement process, becoming an icon of itself.

In contrast with the way Rockwell used his subjects' personality to pull in his audience, Leyendecker sought to strip individuality from his models to reveal the icons he was seeking. If a local mechanic was modelling he became The Worker in paint. Facial features were simplified, caricatured, or ennobled, sometimes literally streamlined.

By 1921, trouble was ripening at the Leyendecker mansion, much of which can only be speculated upon. In his autobiography, Rockwell laid blame on Beach for smothering and bullying J. C. and denounced Beach as a bloodsucking parasite. It was said Frank could not keep up with the expenses, and was tiring of the rat-race he and J. C. had created. When Beach began to help Frank with his share of the bills, Beach began to control Frank as well.

J. C. was going to marry, according to his purported fiancée, the graceful beauty who posed for his 1923 "Cleopatra" cover. It was rumored that J. C. wanted to end his relationship with Beach, who promptly threatened to publicly reveal J. C.'s homosexuality to buy his fidelity.

Eventually, instead of having the leisure to explore fine arts as he desired to do, Frank and the Leyendeckers' sister, Augusta, were thrown out of the house. Biographer Michael Schau proposed that Frank's death soon after was of a combination of drugs and depression. Certainly he had reason to be despondent. Frank's later work was underpaid and lackluster, salting his wounds of inferiority. After a year of struggling on in a garage, Francis X. Leyendecker, who was born around Christmas, 1877, died on Good Friday, 1924, at the age of forty-six, probably a suicide. At the mansion, the subject of Frank was thenceforth taboo.

That J. C. Leyendecker could continue to produce paintings during this period is remarkable. But his ads and covers appeared regularly; he always faced deadlines stoically. Whatever J. C. endured internally during the period of Frank's estrangement and death, a spell of black humor seeped into his imagery. Kuppenheimer clotheshorses lost their warmth and Leyendecker's gentle humor acquired a sharp edge. In one magazine cover, a War God laughs at the Dove of Peace. In another, the New Year's Baby appears starkly as the Executioner of the Thanksgiving Turkey.

A significant development pulled Leyendecker out of his funk. In 1926, the Saturday Evening Post finally began to print its covers in full color. Leyendecker celebrated with startlingly colorful slices of American life, intricate medieval fantasies, and powerful patriotic figures.

In the thirties, the artist hit his stride. His covers from this period practically strut with fresh ideas. He imbued these with amusing twists of humor, this time at no one's expense.

Leyendecker continued to churn out works in his late sixties, refusing to rest on his laurels. He couldn't afford to. The Post had unceremoniously dumped dozens of its regular illustrators when its famous editor, George Horace Lorimer, was retired in the late 1930s. For three years, J. C. was assigned only the nominal New Year's Baby cover, then dropped altogether. This put him in the unexpected position of having to scramble for work, but several excellent series of advertising paintings for new clients were the result of this hardship.

When Leyendecker died in 1951, no savings were left for Beach and half the estate went to Augusta. Beach was reduced to selling sketch canvases to pupils at the Art Students League for drinking money. Yet in doing so, he performed an invaluable service. J. C. had wanted the sketches destroyed -- as always, not wanting to reveal the man behind the curtain -- but they were all Beach had left to live on.

At the time of his death, Leyendecker's style was considered passé, long before appreciation of it revived. Beach's attempts to sell the art did not go well. Many Post cover canvases were priced at a yard sale for $75 each, and the Society of Illustrators held a show with piles of drawings and sketches for as low as $1 apiece. After Beach died, an art supply shop in New Rochelle had a stack of paintings to sell for years. It was mostly other artists who purchased the works, spending whatever they could, in awe of the technical mastery of the work.

With this exhibit, a new generation will have a chance to enjoy Leyendecker's succinct contributions of Americana, via the richness of his original paintings. Perhaps the show will inspire a new wave of graphic homage to Leyendecker. Yet, it is an exquisite combination of color, texture, value and shape that live in each Leyendecker brush stroke, making his work inimitable. He didn't need the myth after all -- J. C. Leyendecker truly possessed a magic of his own.


About the author

Roger T. Reed was born in 1954 and attended Hampshire College. In 1981, he joined Illustration House, the gallery founded by his father, Walt Reed, and today he is president of the gallery. He has written a number of articles about illustrators and the market for illustration art.

Resource Library editor's note

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on February 12, 2009 with with permission of the author, which was granted to TFAO on January 8, 2009.

The article pertains to an exhibition entitled J.C. Leyendecker: A Retrospective, which was on display at the Norman Rockwell Museum November 8, 1997 - May 25, 1998. It appeared in the November - December 1997 issue of American Art Review.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Shana Herb Johannessen for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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J. C. Leyendecker - The Great American Illustrator is a 2002 video from Kultur Video With hundreds of paintings for The Saturday Evening Post and other publications, J.C. Leyendecker was one of the most successful illustrators of his time. This 45 minute video biography explores the warmth and imagination that marked his work. Kultur Video says: J.C. Leyendecker was the most successful illustrator of his time, creating over 500 paintings for magazine covers - including 322 for the Saturday Evening Post - and advertisements that made his clients famous. His paintings portrayed a lifestyle that resonated with millions of Americans. Even when depicting those issues that mattered most - a woman's right to vote, the economic woes of the Depression, victory over Nazi Germany - he never employed a heavy hand or a dark mood; his images were always full of human warmth and imagination. Leyendecker told the story of consumerism as if it were lyric poetry; replacing the turbulence of cultural history with a beauteous glance, a beguiling child, a muscular vision, or a gentle hand."

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