Before Norman Rockwell, the American ideal was shaped by a different illustrator - Joseph Christian Leyendecker. He was the preeminent artist of the golden age of American Illustration during the first half of the 20th century and inspired an entire generation of illustrators who came after him. While his works were extremely popular and in high demand for a time, he died in almost complete obscurity, having been overshadowed by the success of Rockwell and passed up by the fast-changing publishing industry. Luckily, his body of work has since been revisited and is now appreciated for its powerful impact on American fine art and popular culture.
From Europe to America
J.C. Leyendecker (Joe to family and friends) was born in Montabaur, Germany in 1874 and immigrated to America at the age of eight with his mother, father and siblings. The family settled in Chicago where his mother’s uncle was vice president of the McAcoy Brewing Company, giving the future illustrator his first exposure to the world of branding and advertising. He underwent his first formal training at the Chicago Art Institute, but had some professional experience before that. He decided at age 15 that he would become an artist and very enterprisingly brought his small portfolio to the engraving firm of J. Manz & Company in hopes of being hired. They took him on as an errand boy, but noticed his talent early on and soon let him create illustrations.
Leyendecker traveled to Paris in 1896 with his younger brother Frank, where they both enrolled in the Académie Julian, a private art school that boasts other prestigious alumni such as Henri Matisse, Childe Hassam, Robert Henri, John Singer Sargent and many more. In Paris, the brothers rubbed elbows with successful illustrators Alphonse Mucha and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Leyendecker was soon gaining a reputation as an up-and-coming artist to be watched.
Finding a Niche
After a few years in France, the brothers returned to Chicago. Leyendecker had learned what imagery appealed to the public and was ready to begin his art career in earnest for an American audience. He quickly developed a relationship with the popular magazine the Saturday Evening Post and received his first cover commission from them in 1899. This solidified Leyendecker’s place in the emerging graphic arts industry at a time when printing technology was advancing rapidly. Advertisements and magazine covers were now opportunities for an artist’s work to be seen by millions at once, and Leyendecker was taking the lead in terms of viewership. He moved to New York City along with brother Frank and sister Mary in 1900 to advance his career and break out into the advertising industry on a national scale. He received regular work from men’s retailer House of Kuppenheimer, and as his reputation grew, he began receiving more and more commissions.
Discovering a Muse
As a men’s clothing illustrator, Leyendecker employed many male models, but in 1903, one would capture his attention and serve as his muse and partner for the rest of his life. Charles A. Beach was a handsome and confident young Canadian (17 years old to Leyendecker’s 29) who had come to New York to pursue acting. Gaining no headway there, he turned to modeling, earning a place as Leyendecker’s Arrow Collar Man.
The Arrow Collar Man was an advertising creation for Cluett, Peabody & Company’s line of Arrow shirts that ran from 1905-1930. Modeled after Charles Beach, the Arrow Collar Man was always dapper, debonair and smartly dressed. Admired by men and yearned for by women, he became an American icon of manhood. Ironically, because of Leyendecker and Beach’s romantic relationship, many of these works relfected an undercurrent of homo-eroticism. The first successful American gay artist had subverted and largely dictated the notion of the ideal American man.
Rise and Fall
With the help of Leyendecker’s cover illustrations, the Saturday Evening Post became the best-selling magazine in the country by 1913. Leyendecker would eventually contribute 322 Post covers - one more than his protégé Norman Rockwell. His holiday covers featuring a jolly vision of Santa Claus and his signature New Year’s Baby series were especially popular and helped grow the Post’s circulation.
He also painted for virtually every other important publication of the time: Vanity Fair, Collier’s, Literary Digest, Century Magazine, The Chap Book... the list goes on and on. All of this allowed Leyendecker and Beach to enjoy real wealth, and his annual salary rose to $50,000 per year - the equivalent of around $1 million today. They built a home in New Rochelle, New York, where they hosted scores of people for extravagant Gatsby-esque parties through the 1920s. However, by the 1930s Leyendecker’s work was falling out of fashion as the public began to favor Norman Rockwell’s style of illustration. The publishing industry was also undergoing a change with the rise of film and television. In 1941, the Saturday Evening Post changed hands and work dried up for Leyendecker; he became increasingly reclusive.
Death of an Illustrator
“I guess if I had to live it all over again, I might have done it differently, but maybe I couldn’t have...” - J.C. Leyendecker in a letter to Norman Rockwell, 1951 Leyendecker died at his home in New Rochelle of a heart attack on July 25, 1951 at age 77. Only seven people attended the wake - his sister Mary, Beach, Rockwell, two cousins, the priest and the funeral director. Leyendecker had asked Beach to “destroy everything” after his death, and Beach mostly obliged. He destroyed all of their letters, mementos and documents, but could not bring himself to destroy the artwork. He instead sold what was left in a yard sale, but interest was anemic and nothing sold for more than seven dollars. Beach would die only a year later.
A Paradoxical Legacy
A fascinating, trailblazing, but ultimately tragic figure in American art, Leyendecker’s life is one of contradictions. He learned how to become America’s leading image maker by studying in Paris. He is the classic immigrant success story, yet he died in relative obscurity. He thrived in a time of great excess, but ended up a recluse. And he defined masculinity in early 20th-century America through the eyes of a gay man. Following his death, his works remained in obscurity until the 1980s and 90s, when multiple exhibitions of his work were held, including retrospectives at the American Illustrators Gallery (New York City) and the Norman Rockwell Museum (Stockbridge, Massachusetts). In 1999, a U.S. Postal Service stamp featuring one of his legendary New Year’s Babies was developed to ring in the new millennium. Since this resurgence in popularity, Leyendecker has been recognized for the impact he had on American Illustration, advertising and American art as a whole, and his works are coveted by museums and collectors alike. Click here to view our current collection of works by J.C. Leyendecker.