I first found out about J.C. Leyendecker when I was in high school and one of our magazine subscriptions came with a free calendar with illustrations from old “Saturday Evening Post” covers. Most of them were by Norman Rockwell, but many came from J.C. Leyendecker, a prolific illustrator from the early 1900’s who actually mentored Rockwell and many other famous American artists.
Born in Germany, but raised in Chicago with his sister and two brothers, Joe had an interest in commercial art from an early age, designing his first label at the age of eleven and pursuing an internship at an engraving firm at fifteen. His first formal education came from the Art Institute of Chicago, but Joe saved his money to fund an education for his brother, Frank, and him to attend Academie Julian in Paris so that they could experience the graphic art culture that was much more prevalent in Europe at the time. He was influenced by the Impressionists, as well as Alphonse Mucha and Toulouse-Lautrec and was greatly interested in the power of a piece of commercial illustrative art to be viewed and appreciated by thousands of people across the world regardless of its original function as an advertisement or magazine cover.
After Paris, Joe moved to New York with Frank and his sister to further the success he had already achieved as a student in Europe. Frank and Joe worked together at first, but Frank was a much less disciplined that Joe, to the point where Joe was doing most of the work for Frank’s commissions. Their work became massively popular through the 20’s and 30’s, but by World War II, his work was no longer in demand as interests turned to film and photography rather than the illustrative work. He lived until 1951 in isolation with his model and partner, Charles Beach.
His best known works are probably his “Saturday Evening Post” covers which included his iconic New Year’s Baby and holiday illustrations, as well as his illustrations for Arrow Collar Shirts, for whom he invented the Arrow Collar Man, an icon of masculinity and style. In fact, Leyendecker most enjoyed drawing and painting men. His insistence of the destruction of all of his personal correspondences and materials upon his death and his long-time association with Charles Beach confirm to modern art historians that Joe was almost certainly closeted and his relationship with Charles was romantic. However, at the time of their publication, his work was considered to exemplify the height of heterosexual masculinity in its portrayal of athletes, society men, and working men.
What I most admire about Leyendecker’s work is his strong sense of graphic elements incorporated with lively and lifelike figures. He worked almost exclusively from live models, and loved to capture the idiosyncrasies of human anatomy, movement, and expression. As a result, I find his figures to be incredibly animated and imbued with a sense of existence and personality. The tiny but important details he put into his illustrations allow a viewer to more powerfully relate to the image, which is an important aspect of both commercial and noncommercial work.
His process is also very interesting in that he preferred to create a batch of thumbnails first, and then work directly from a model based off of his ideas for the final composition. He would work from thumbnail, to sketch, to smaller full color and detail canvas, to final image through use of pencil grids drawn over his canvases to maintain sizes and relationships of elements. He would also discard and add aspects to his illustration throughout the process, to create the most distilled and effective version of the image in the final. His brush technique, known as pochet, is one of my favorite things in that despite the fact that his work is done almost exclusively in oils or gouache, the hatching strokes emulate textured pencil marks.
All in all, Leyendecker is one of my favorite artists, specifically because of his fascination with the power of art as a commercial commodity as well as his ability to turn his masterful technique towards the production of images that stand as artworks beyond their primary function as advertisement.
Cutler, Laurence S., and Judy Goffman Cutler. J.C. Leyendecker, American Imagist. New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 2008. Print.
Reed, Walt. Great American Illustrators. New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 1979. Print.