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J.C. Leyendecker: America's "Other" Illustrator

February 6 - April 1, 2007


The R.W. Norton Art Gallery is presenting J.C. Leyendecker: America's "Other" Illustrator, which opened February 6 and continues through April 1, 2007. The exhibit, organized by The Haggin Museum in Stockton, California, consists of 56 paintings, sketches, studies, original magazine covers and advertisements from the Haggin Museum collection. The showing in Shreveport is the first of an eight city national tour over the next two and a half years. (left: Joseph Christian Leyendecker (1874-1951), Admiral Stark (Poster), oil on canvas, 1944)

Joseph Christian Leyendecker (1874-1951) may not be as well known as his fellow American illustrator Norman Rockwell, but during his long career his work was some of the most popular of its day. Born at Montabour in Southwest Germany, Leyendecker came to America with his parents in 1882 and settled in Chicago. Recognizing their son's artistic abilities, his parents allowed him to apprentice at a Chicago engraving house where he eventually advanced to a full-time position as staff artist. At night he would attend classes at the Chicago Art Institute.

In September 1896 Leyendecker 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-more than any other artist, including Norman Rockwell.

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. (right Joseph Christian Leyendecker (1874-1951), Kellogg's Kid, Girl, (Advertisement), oil on canvas, 1916)

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. 14 of these original paintings are included in the exhibition.

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.

By the 1940s his popularity had begun to wane. There were the war posters, some calendar illustrations, and cover work for William Randolph Hearst's American Weekly magazine, but not much else. In 1951, at the age of 77, Leyendecker suffered a heart attack and died at his home/studio in New Rochelle, NY. (right Joseph Christian Leyendecker (1874-1951), Barking Up the Wrong Turkey (Saturday Evening Post cover), oil/canvas, Nov. 27, 1926)

This exhibition of paintings, sketches, studies, and associated ephemera at the Norton Art Gallery provides new generations with the opportunity to experience the artwork that mainstream America took to its heart during the first half of the 20th century.

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Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the R. W. Norton Art Gallery in Resource Library.

TFAO also suggests these DVD or VHS videos:

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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