The Norman Rockwell Museum

Stockbridge, MA



J.C. Leyendecker: A Retrospective

November 8, 1997 - May 25, 1998


The Norman Rockwell Museum at Stockbridge will host a major exhibition, J.C. Leyendecker: A Retrospective featuring original works by one of the most celebrated artists of America's Golden Age of Illustration. This exhibition, curated by Roger Reed, Director of Illustration House in New York City, opens on November 8, 1997 and runs through May 25, 1998. This first retrospective of original Leyendecker works will be mounted in three main galleries at the museum and complements the museum's permanent collection of original paintings by Norman Rockwell.

This comprehensive retrospective will comprise over one hundred original paintings and drawings including covers for The Saturday Evening Post and advertisements for Arrow Collars and Shirts. The length and breadth of his career will be explored, from student art of the 1890s to his late work for American Weekly. His sketch canvases and preliminaries will be shown side by side with the finished oils to reveal his working methods and thought processes. The exhibit will also include several pieces by the artist's brother, Francis X. Leyendecker, a prominent illustrator in his own right. There will be examples by other artists, rare posters, photographs, props and other objects from Leyendecker's studio, showing the artist in his environment. "This exhibition shows the entire range of the artist's body of work and puts some of his best-known images into context," said Roger Reed, exhibit curator. "One never grasps the total scope of an artist's work when viewing an isolated image. Only a retrospective look gives the viewer that unique opportunity. These images are familiar to the public as reproductions. Only when seeing the original work can one get a total perspective of the genius of J.C. Leyendecker," he added.

"Hosting the exhibition, J. C. Leyendecker: A Retrospective represents a major milestone in the continuation of the museum's educational mission to show Norman Rockwell's work in the context of the larger field of illustration" said Laurie Norton Moffatt, Museum Director. "J.C. Leyendecker was one of the most prominent and successful illustrators working in the Golden Age of Illustration, and was a source of inspiration for Norman RockweII. Rockwell greatly admired Leyendecker and had one of Leyendecker's works in his private collection. The two artists' work and lives were so deeply intertwined, that it is fitting that this first serious retrospective of Leyendecker's work should be launched at the Norman Rockwell Museum," she added.


J.C. Leyendecker - Artist


J.C. Leyendecker created 319 covers for The Saturday Evening Post. From 1903 to 1943, as one of the top cover artists, he was commissioned to do holiday issue covers including Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, Valentine's Day, July 4th and the forerunner of Presidents Day. He employed the Pilgrim and the turkey to signify Thanksgiving, Uncle Sam for July 4th and, in 1906, created the icon of the new-born baby as an emblem of the New Year. This became his own trademark. After many years of interpreting the holidays, Leyendecker managed to generate fresh ideas, execute them with conviction and give them amusing twists of humor.

Although his illlustrations appeared regularly in national magazines, it was his commercial work that established him most rapidly as one of the most sought-after illustrators ofthe day. The "Arrow Collar Man" became an overnight sensation and generated fan mail by the ton. Although fictional, he was the subject of admiring poems, songs and even a Broadway play. In one month in the early 1920s, the Arrow Collar Man received 17,000 fan letters, gifts, marriage proposals and notes threatening suicide -- surpassing even Rudolph Valentino's fan mail at the height of his career. In 1918, Arrow Collar sales rose to over $32 million.

By evoking a youthful virile atmosphere, Leyendecker pioneered the advertising dictum that it is the lifestyle that sells. He established the prototype of the stylish American Male promoting fashions by B. Kuppenheimer, Hart Schaffner & Marx, and Interwoven Socks. Couture was important to Leyendecker, and he produced a steady stream of fashion illustrations from 1898 on. In addition to the commercial work, Leyendecker continued to illustrate for national periodicals.

Along with a few other illustrators, Leyendecker invented the modern magazine cover to function as a miniature poster that would engage the viewer, impart an idea and sell the issue, all within the few seconds one browses at the newsstand. Between 1896 and 1950, he painted over 400 magazine covers, each compressing a whole narrative into one image that acted like a headline. He used this format as a wide platform for expressing a cumulative portrait of his America, which, in effect, advertised the publication.


J.C. Leyendecker - The Man


If Leyendecker's stature as an illustrator is invulnerable, the few known details of his life stand in stark contrast to his self-spun myth of artist-as-superman. In person, he was very shy and spoke with a stutter. Moreover, he was homosexual in an era when exposure meant ruin. He lived as a virtual recluse, locked in struggles of power and love in an ivory tower, and driven by impossible goals, leading to tragedy.

Born in Montabaur, Germany, J.C. Leyendecker emigrated to Chicago with his family in 1882 when he was eight. His career began in 1896, when he won first place in The Century cover competition and a commission to design a year's worth of monthly covers for The Inland Printer. Famed illustrator Maxfield Parrish won second prize in that same competition. With his prize money and savings, he and his younger brother Francis Xavier decided to study in Paris, where they remained over one year.

Around this time, the brothers developed a credo which was effective in compelling them 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." When they were young and successful, this credo could he a fun game, a kind of race for each to outdo himself and the other. They made and spent large sums of money, dwarfing the previous income benchmarks for an illustrator. The culmination was the building of a chateau in New Rochelle with a separate wing for each studio.

Frank was an excellent artist in his own right and executed a spectacular series of monthly covers for Collier's Weekly magazine from 1902 to 1905. At this point, he was the higher-profile ofthe two brothers. However, the competition between the brothers caused Frank to work at a killing pace, and Joe, a formidable pacer, soon outshone Frank. Eventually the same bond that held the brothers together split them apart.


Norman Rockwell and J.C. Leyendecker


Norman Rockwell referred to him as "the great J.C. Leyendecker." in his autobiography, My Adventures as an Illustrator, Rockwell acknowledges Leyendecker's influence and inspiration. They were friends and neighbors. Rockwell's autobiography devotes a chapter, The Mansion on Mount Tom Road to Leyendecker. He tells of their first social evening when J.C. and his brother Frank were invited to the Rockwell's home for dinner. Rackwell hired a cook to prepare a Thanksgiving dinner in July, complete with turkey and trimmings. After a very awkward beginning of the evening, they were called in to dinner. When the cook came through the kitchen door with the turkey, she slipped on the edge of the rug and the turkey rolled under the table. Rockwell crawled under the table from one side and Leyendecker from the other. They met over the turkey which was lying on its side with stuffing gushing from its breast. "That smells good," Leyendecker said as he tasted the stuffing with his finger. When the turkey was put on another platter and dinner was served, the conversation and laughter flowed and the artists became fast friends and remained friends for over twenty-five years.


Images and text courtesy of Norman Rockwell Museum.

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