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Sunday, September 29, 2013

J.C. Leyendecker

A Leyendecker Arrow shirt collar ad from 1910. More than any other single artist, Leyendecker dictated the dominant popular image of eastern society for the first thirty years of the 20th century.
J.C. Leyendecker, 1895
Artists create images. Take that of Jesus, for instance--a total fabrication by artists. Another example would be death--the grim reaper. Liberty--thank the French artists, Bartholdi and Delacroix. Most of our holiday images have been dictated by artists. Santa Claus is the work of Thomas Nast, J.C. Leyendecker, Norman Rockwell, and the Coca-Cola Company (among others). And Christmas' next door neighbor, New Years, with it's ever popular naked baby--that was totally the inspiration of J.C. Leyendecker. Moreover, if you take the time to peruse the art of Leyendecker, you'll find he had only a slightly lesser influence on Thanksgiving, Fourth-of-July, and Mother's Day. He singlehandedly made the turkey the symbol of Thanksgiving, flowers the major emphasis for Mother's Day, and had a lot to do with firecrackers on the Fourth-of-July. Few artists can claim that kind of lasting cultural influence.

Leyendecker's jolly man in red.
J. C. Leyendecker was the epitome, and created the epitome image of the early 20th century cultured gentleman--the Great Gatsby type. F. Scott Fitzgerald may have written Gatsby, but Leyendecker drew him. Even the many actors who have portrayed Fitzgerald's dated cultural icon have been lookalikes cast from Leyendecker images. Though I know of no direct connection between Fitzgerald and Leyendecker, there was really no need for one. Cluett Peabody and Company, the maker of Arrow collars (and later shirts) in hiring Leyendecker to sell their product, supplied all the connection needed (top).
The Leyendecker brothers,
Paris, 1896
Born in 1874 in Germany, Joseph Christian Leyendecker's family came to the U.S. in 1882, settling in Chicago where they founded a successful brewing company. J.C. and his younger brother, Frank, studied first at the Chicago Art Institute before moving on to Paris and the Academie Julian in 1896. There they were exposed to the work of Toulouse-Lautrec and the Art Nouveau style. Upon returning home in 1899, the two brothers set up a studio together first in Chicago, then in the commercial art capital of New York. About the same time, the elder Leyendecker got his first Saturday Evening Post cover commission. It was the first of 322, a record which exceeded that of even Norman Rockwell (by one cover). Rockwell was a great admirer of Leyendecker, who was a major influence during the first decades of Rockwell's work.
Bearing only the immodest apparel
of mythology, Leyendecker's 1907
male nude, Speed God, may have 
raised as many eyebrows as it
sold magazines.
In 1914, the Leyendecker brothers bought an impressive home in New Rochelle, New York. Accompanying them was Charles Beach, one of Leyendecker's principal models for Arrow Shirt ads. It's a safe assumption (though difficult to prove) that all three were gay. Other than a sister, there were no female figures in the brothers' lives and one doesn't have to probe far beneath the surface to note considerable homoerotic overtones to Leyendecker's work (right). Their lifestyle, though less openly gay than that of Romaine Brooks (previous article, directly below) was stereotypical of the 1920s Gatsby social whirl of lavish parties and overindulgence in drugs and alcohol. Frank Leyendecker, in fact, died of such overindulgences in 1924.
Leyendecker's final Post cover,
Slashing the Nazis.
After his brother's death at the age of 48, though Leyendecker's work was no less in demand, the artist became more and more reclusive. Beach became his sole link to the advertising world. After that world came crashing down in 1929, commissions became less lucrative. Leyendecker had always lived beyond his means. During the hardscrabble era of the 1930s, work was hard to come by, his style starting to appear dated. Nearly broke, Beach dismissed the household staff. Cluett Peabody dropped him, as did Interwoven Socks, Kellogg, and Gillette. Leyendecker's Saturday Evening Post Covers became few and far between with the 1936 retirement of longtime editor, George Lorimer. Norman Rockwell filled the void. Leyendecker's final New Year's baby cover (above, left) appeared January 2, 1943. During the war he managed to obtain meager work from the military. He was 70 by the time the war ended, his art long since having gone out of style. J.C. Leyendecker died in relative obscurity in 1951. Beach died a few months later.

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