oseph Cristian Leyendecker was born in 1874 in Germany and emigrated with his parents, his sister Augusta Mary and his brother Franck, to America in 1882. He was part of the generation that included Franklin Booth (1874), Howard Chandler Christy (1873), James Montgomery Flagg (1877), F.R. Gruger (1871),Maxfield Parrish (1870),Frank Schoonover (1877), W.T. Benda (1873), Aubrey Beardsley (1872), Jessie M. King (1876), andW.Heath Robinson (1872). Like many of these artists, he developed a distinct, personal style and enjoyed a long, productive career. And like many of his contemporaries, he demonstrated early talent that was nurtured by his parents. In 1889 he completed what education he was to get. His family was unable to pay for further education in the arts, so Leyendecker apprenticed himself at the age of 15 to J. Manz & Co., a Chicago engraving house. He took art lessons in the evenings at the Chicago Art Institute. One of his primary instructors there was John H. Vanderpoel, whose books on anatomy are still being sought after today. Vanderpoel studied in France and brought the classical Academie techniques to his instruction. His efforts must have been effective, because Leyendecker quickly advanced from errand boy to staff illustrator at his day job. J. Manz & Co. was a printing house and at that time printing houses provided more than reproduction services.
Leyendecker was called upon to design posters and advertisements for Manz clients. At the age of 19, he was given the task of creating 60 illustrations for an edition of the Bible that Manz was to produce. In 1896, he won a Century Magazine cover competition (2nd place was Maxfield Parrish!) that brought his work to national notice. This led to cover assignments to other national magazines, like Inland Printer for whom he did all twelve of their covers for 1897. The work was produced, however, from Paris. Joe and his brother Franck, also a very talented artist, traveled to France in the Autumn of 1896.
There, the brothers studied in the famous Academie Julian and Colarossi, where they learned the classic techniques that would distinguish both their work, the delicate and demanding “hachure” method of drawing from the academic masters. Blended shading was not allowed: forms had to be rendered by delicate vertical strokes or hatch marks of the pencil. While immersed in the neo-classical training of the Académie, the Leyendecker brothers also became familiar with the popular advertising posters by artists such as Jules Cherêt, Alphonse Mucha and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. The Leyendeckers were considered the most talented members of their class, and Joe even had a one-man show of his work at the smaller of the two major Salons – The Champs du Mars.
The brothers returned to America in the Fall of 1898 and opened a studio in the Chicago Stock Exchange. Here, they found an America bursting at the boundaries of its old, straitlaced contours, with new and vibrant art forms straining to be born. In classical music, in dance, in theater, in fiction, the certainties of the Victorian era were butting against the new technologies and mind frames of the 20th century. Art as well: first in Chicago and then later in New York, J.C. Leyendecker seized the chances this newer and younger atmosphere presented, and through his advertising artwork, he quickly became the most successful commercial artist in the country.
To cross-hatch in oil paint, the brothers concocted a “secret formula” – a mixture of oils and turpentine – that was coveted by other artists. When mixed with paint, it enabled a slashing stroke without the brush going dry. It provided the speed and dexterity of pencil, with the graphic impact of color. The Leyendeckers were, essentially, drawing with paint. Leyendecker was a keen commercial strategist. In evaluating how to best promote himself and his work Leyendecker believed that his greatest impact as an artist was creating images easily reproduced, immediately recognized and broadly distributed for audiences by the millions to appreciate. He made certain that upon seeing his work people would say, “That’s a Leyendecker!”. Indeed, since recent advancements in the technology of printing and distribution had made illustrations a staple of the rapidly-expanding magazine industry, it’s fair to say Leyendecker became the most successful commercial artist in American history.
Around this time, J. C. and Frank developed a credo to compel themselves 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.” Rockwell, whose autobiografy is the main first-hand font of informations about Leyendecker brothers, noted that this belief favored output over quality, and caused J. C. to select lucrative commercial jobs over works that would enhance his long-term stature, such as murals. When the brothers were young and on their way to success, the credo was an entertaining game, a race to outdo each other. Frank was an excellent artist in his own right, and briefly – while executing a spectacular series of monthly covers for Collier’s Weekly magazine from 1902 to 1905 – the higher-profile of the two. But Frank couldn’t pull off the same technical sleights of hand as J. C. He sought to compensate, for instance, by obsessively rendering every knot of a lace sleeve. This caused him to work at a killing pace – and J. C. was a formidable pace-setter.  When J. C. raised the bar above Frank’s reach, the destructive side of their credo emerged. Frank suffered migraines and started taking drugs (an inhabit, as well as a taste for drink, picked up at the Paris bohemian ambience); there were times when he couldn’t work. Eventually their competitive bond split the brothers apart. Joseph soon was working for national publications like Colliers and The Saturday Evening Post and in 1900 the Chicago studio was exchanged for one in New York, the hub of the magazine industry.
From there he poured forth an amazing quantity of illustrations, covers and advertisements. Putting a color illustration inside a magazine was then a logistical nightmare. Color demanded special paper and printing care. Issues of magazines were practically designed around the color plates, which had to be collated between signatures or else individually glued in. One magazine, Delineator, came up with an idea: a feature comprised of a half dozen color plates that integrated text and art. By moving the text into the illustration, Delineator could insert this group between two signatures. Inserting the plates as a group incurred no more binding expense than if one sheet was inserted (it was done by hand). Other magazines quickly followed with similar color sections. This new ability to reproduce color illustrations took the magazine industry by storm and the Leyendecker competed strongly for works that merited the expense.
Leyendecker was what we’d call today a “hot property” as his paintings sold magazines and books, and publishers wanted more than just a cover. During his 43 year association with the Post, Leyendecker helped define the modern magazine cover as a unique art form – a miniposter whose design rapidly communicated its message (his prize-winning 1896 cover for Century magazine became the first piece of artwork manufactured separately for sale as a poster). His covers were animated by people and themes that resonated with his audience because of his ability to capture and convey a range of human emotions and situations in his hallmark style of wide, crisp, and controlled brushstrokes accented by bold highlights. There are only a handful of books illustrated by JCL, as the cover assignments traditionally paid better and required little if any more effort. His first book illustrations were in 1895 for The Dolly Dialogues and One Fair Daughter. Next came The Pit: The Epic of the Wheat in 1903, Ridolfo in 1906, Iole and Mortmain in 1907, and The Crimson Conquest in 1908.
By 1910, J. C. had landed two advertising accounts which dictated the shape of his career beyond magazine covers: Kuppenheimer Clothes and Arrow Collar (later Arrow Shirts). Couture was important to J. C: he had been producing a steady stream of fashion advertising since 1898. Kuppenheimer and Arrow, however, were top brands with big budgets, and over twenty years they commissioned hundreds of advertising paintings from him. He began the Kuppenheimer campaign with a parade of men in suits,  then incorporated the models into plausible scenes of carefree young men, emphasizing collegiate sports. Evoking a youthful, virile atmosphere, J. C. laid a basic foundation for modern advertising: the selling of “lifestyle.”
For Arrow, Leyendecker forged a separate identity. He focused not on the collar, but the faces it framed. The Arrow Collar Man was the male counterpoint of The Gibson Girl and was one of the most successful advertising images in history. It turned Arrow into the largest collar/shirt brand in America. He provided the bulk of their advertising until 1930.
Girls swooned over the images of handsome young men, all painted from models who each received mountains of fan mail each time a new face appeared in the ads. The stylishly dressed and strikingly handsome men that he created for Arrow Collars and Shirts established the beau ideal for the sartorially savvy American male.
Soon the chiseled good looks of Leyendecker’s men were also helping to sell socks for the Interwoven Stocking Company, and “long johns” for the Cooper Underwear Company – the precursor to Jockey International, Inc. In that period Leyendecker brothers used to share models whith neighboring artists, which meant a seemingly endless train of attractive Greenwich Village lads parading through their chilly studio in the buff. The most important detail about that train of lads was the appearance of one lad in particular, the statuesque 17-years-old Charles Beach (Ontario, Canada, 1886-1952), who so captivated the 28-years-old Leyendecker that he was instantly absorbed into both the artist’s life and his work.
He was the model for Leyendecker’s most famous ad campaign, Cluett, Peabody & Company’s line of Arrow Shirts and Arrow Collars, becoming the very epitome of American manliness, prosperity & style, at one time getting more fanmail and proposals of marriage than Rudolph Valentino. What his legion of fans did not realise was that their idol, Leyendecker`s model, was in fact his lover. They met in 1901 and Beach soon became Leyendecker’s husband, cook, business manager and favorite model all through his career, living with him for fifty years.
Leyendecker pulled an effective veil over his private life and it’s significant that by 1974 when Schau wrote his biografy, he could only fill 22 pages with words and nearly half of them are devoted to Leyendecker life before he moved to New York. The people with whom he was closest were his brother Frank, his sister Augusta, and Beach, and they did not provide any written insights into his life. Leyendecker was homosexual at a time when it was nearly impossible to be so publicly and when even the whiff of such a thing would be enough to kill a career. So, to ensure his privacy and conceal his gay lifestyle, Leyendecker meticulously cleansed his files and records of anything homosexually explicit or implicit. They did not, anyway, lived happily ever after.
Simultaneous with his advertising work, Leyendecker became the Saturday Evening Post‘s top cover artist, which landed him the holiday issues. In his heyday, Leyendecker was the most famous Post cover artist they have ever had. His first cover for the magazine was in 1899, before the cover became a miniature poster designed to attract the eye of a newsstand buyer. Now he returned in 1903 for a 40-year association in which he produced over 320 covers. For needed graphic punch, Leyendecker borrowed symbolic characters from the arsenal of the political cartoonists.
He employed the Pilgrim and the Turkey to signify Thanksgiving, Uncle Sam for July Fourth, and beginning in 1906, the new born baby as emblem of the New Year, which became his own trademark. For almost forty years, the Post featured a Leyendecker Baby on its New Year’s covers. His first “babies” were naturalistic young children. Later, he transformed them to ageless cartoon infants, acting out events to characterize the nation in its upcoming year: cutting the budgets, celebrating victory, etc.
Each year, Leyendecker would do the “important” Post holiday covers: his Easter, Independence Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas covers were annual events for the Post’s millions of readers. No other artist, until the arrival of Norman Rockwell two decades later, was so solidly identified with one publication. Each published painting was the distilled product of a great amount of work.
Leyendecker reportedly worked in stages, creating many small-scale studies from which he would then construct the whole using the traditional technique of “squaring up” to transfer to the larger canvas. Once satisfied with his pencil sketch of an idea, Leyendecker would pose models in costume and directly paint oil on canvas, sketching the figures in various positions until the pose was just right. As a point of pride, Leyendecker always worked with models, dismissing the use of photographic reference as a wrongheaded distraction. His sketches have a lively spontaneity; they also map his thought process. Some consider them better than the finished paintings.
No matter how well Leyendecker’s preliminary figure sketches came out, he always painted a more refined final version after the model was dismissed. This method allowed him to extract the essence of the figure, to change it from a person into a personage. Not only holiday symbols, but every character Leyendecker used underwent his refinement process, becoming an icon of itself. In contrast with the way Rockwell used his subjects’ personality to pull in his audience, Leyendecker sought to strip individuality from his models to reveal the icons he was seeking. If a local mechanic was modelling he became The Worker in paint. Facial features were simplified, caricatured, or ennobled, sometimes literally streamlined.
When the United States entered the First World War in 1917, Leyendecker joined his fellow illustrators such as Howard Chandler Christie (1872-1952), Newell Convers Wyeth (1882-1945), James Montgomery Flagg (1877-1960) and Charles Dana Gibson (1867-1944) in creating posters in support of the nation’s war effort. Their dramatic images were used to promote the purchase of war bonds, urge young men to enlist and the general public to conserve resources needed by the military. After the war, if anything, he was more successful. Men’s fashion was probably the most significant aspect of Leyendecker’s advertising opus, but his artwork was also used to promote a host of other products, including automobiles and cigarettes. Starting in 1912, he captured the hearts of American mothers through his series of cherubic infants, winsome children and wholesome adolescents enjoying bowls of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes.
He also created the first Mother’s Day magazine covers for the Post: the Mother’s Day painting single-handedly birthed the flower delivery industry, and it created an American tradition. The success the Leyendecker brothers had achieved in the decade since leaving Chicago allowed them to move once again, this time to New Rochelle, a suburb of New York City, where he built a large house in 1914. At the time New Rochelle was a community that a number of artists had come to call home, including Frederic Remington (1861-1909), Edward Penfield (1866-1925), Orson Lowell (1871-1956), Dean Cornwell (1892-1960) and Norman Rockwell. The Leyendeckers built themselves a 14-room mansion with separate studios and a magnificent garden. Their sister, Augusta, also lived with them, as did Charles Beach. Here, they hosted fabulous parties that set the tone for the Roaring Twenties. F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald were among the famous attendees, and society columnist Walter Winchell slavishly chronicled it all for an audience that ate up every glittering detail. As is usually the way of such things, the reality wasn’t nearly as picturesque. Beach rapidly became a hissy little tyrant, insinuating himself into every aspect of Leyendecker’s life and eventually creating tensions between Leyendecker siblings.
Fear of public exposure (and also possibly love of Beach, one fears) prevented J. C. from putting up much resistance, and even after nearly a century, Beach’s shadow still falls on any account of the artist’s life. By all accounts Beach was both hot and not, given to self aggrandizing claims that he did Leyendecker’s work (despite not being able to draw), along with the more typical fits of jealousy, insecurity, and tyranny. Norman Rockwell complained he never heard Beach say anything intelligent and called him “stupid.” By 1921, trouble was ripening at the Leyendecker mansion, much of which can only be speculated upon.
In his autobiography, Rockwell laid blame on Beach for smothering and bullying J. C. and denounced Beach as a bloodsucking parasite. It was said Frank could not keep up with the expenses, and was tiring of the rat-race he and J. C. had created. When Beach began to help Frank with his share of the bills, Beach began to control Frank as well. J. C. was going to marry, according to his purported fiancée, the graceful beauty who posed for his 1923 “Cleopatra” cover. It was rumored that J. C. wanted to end his relationship with Beach, who promptly threatened to publicly reveal J. C.’s homosexuality to buy his fidelity.
After years of mounting tension, Frank and Augusta moved out in 1923. After a year of struggling on in a garage, Frank, who was born around Christmas, 1877, died on Good Friday, 1924, probably a suicide, at the age of 47. Biographer Michael Schau proposed that Frank’s death was of a combination of drugs and depression. Certainly he had reason to be despondent. Frank’s later work was underpaid and lackluster, salting his wounds of inferiority. At the mansion, the subject of Frank was thenceforth taboo. Although his brother’s death greatly affected him, Leyendecker’s commercial success only increased. The Great Depression cost him his menswear clients, but he still did over 90 covers for the Saturday Evening Post in the ten years following the stock market crash in 1929.
By the end of the 1930s, however, the demand for Leyendecker’s imagery had waned. The Great Depression and the Second World War changed the nature of the times (indeed, Rockwell’s 1935 picture The Partygoers seems to be telling Leyendecker’s gorgeous young things that their time is over), and it wasn’t long before the casual grandeur and display which Leyendecker excelled at capturing fell out of fashion. In 1943, the editorship of the Post changed and the new editor felt that Leyendecker was too strongly associated with the “old” magazine. For three years, J. C. was assigned only the nominal New Year’s Baby cover, then dropped altogether.
So goes 40 years of a mutually satisfying relationship. Joe had to go looking for work. He found it, but not in the quantity he was used to. Some war bond poster work and calendar commissions kept him solvent, but his paying accounts dropped off, and he spent his final years in reduced circumstances: he maintained his palatial home in New Rochelle, but had to let the servants go. The American Weekly hired him in 1945 to do covers. A Sunday supplement to the Hearst newspaper chain, the Weekly was printed on newsprint. The quality of the reproduction was nothing like Leyendecker had been used to and it must have rankled him. The effort he put into the paintings showed some of his frustrations. Many were recycled Post covers with minor changes. While Beach often organized the famous gala-like social gatherings that Leyendecker was known for in the 1920s, he apparently also contributed largely to Leyendecker’s social isolation in his later years. Beach reportedly forbade outside contact with the artist in the last months of his life. In 1951, while working on yet another American Weekly cover, Leyendecker had a heart attack and died.
When Leyendecker died, no savings were left for Beach and half the estate went to Augusta. Beach was reduced to selling sketch canvases (and there were many as Leyendecker tried to always insist on the return of his originals)  to pupils at the Art Students League. Yet in doing so, he performed an invaluable service. J. C. had wanted the sketches destroyed – as always, not wanting to reveal the man behind the curtain – but they were all Beach had left to live on. At the time of his death, Leyendecker’s style was considered passé, long before appreciation of it revived. Beach’s attempts to sell the art did not go well. Many Post cover canvases were priced at a yard sale for $75 each, and the Society of Illustrators held a show with piles of drawings and sketches for as low as $1 apiece.
An art supply shop in New Rochelle had a stack of paintings to sell for years. It was mostly other artists who purchased the works, spending whatever they could, in awe of the technical mastery of the work. Among the pallbearer’s at Leyendecker’s funeral was Norman Rockwell, who by this time had become the Saturday Evening Post’s premier cover artist and was well on his way to becoming America’s favourite illustrator. J.C. Leyendecker, once this nation’s most successful commercial artist, was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in an unmarked grave.
Today it is generally accepted that Norman Rockwell established the best-known visual images of Americana. In reality, in many cases they were in large part picked from Leyendecker’s repertoire by the younger artist. Rockwell virtually did everything possible to imitate J.C. Leyendecker.
In his autobiography, he says:” I’d followed him around town just to see how he acted….I’d ask the models what Mr. Leyendecker did when he was painting. Did he stand up or sit down? Did he talk to the models? What kind of brushes did he use? Did he use Winsor & Newton paints?”. He moved to New Rochelle to be near Leyendecker. He analyzed how J.C. developed his cover ideas. He studied his style and technique, using in his own work the same broad, white background strokes, projecting figures outside the cover frame overlaying the logo masthead, and painting caricatures. He imitated J. C. so completely the public became confused as to the source. Leyendecker’s career slumped thereafter.
A quick glance at the work of the two men bears out these insinuations in abundance: even discounting the fact that such periodicals as The Saturday Evening Post must have had fairly conformist house guidelines, there’s clear, premeditated swiping going on, and not just in terms of subject matter (Indians at Thanksgiving and kids playing marbles being fairly obvious motifs) – even in terms of basic composition, a great many of Rockwell’s most famous pictures are in fact barely-retouched Leyendecker.
Leyendecker was slight and disliked confrontation; when his friends warned him Rockwell was stealing his style, he didn’t protest (being a gay man and an immigrant in the early 20th century may also have amplified his instincts to avoid trouble): in this Rockwell was fortunate – another man might have felt very, very bitter. That bitterness would have been compounded by another obvious visual fact: even in the face of Rockwell’s pointillist imitations, Leyendecker is the better artist (at least until Rockwell came naturally into his later style). J.C. eschewed photography and used only live models, developing his own version of the Impressionist technique of pochet – quick, thick, seemingly unmediated brush strokes to give a striking, almost Oriental feel to his backgrounds – and he used a special fast-drying mix of linseed oil and turpentine to give a ‘just painted’ look to his various oils, gouaches, and inks.
He embraced a weird but effective combination of iconic simplicity and rococo decoration, which turned out to be the natural method for the new field of advertising: “An illustrator wanted to gently guide his audience’s eye directly to the subject at hand, be it a supple satin shirt draped over a gentleman’s muscular chest, an elegant uniform fitted onto the chiselled frame of a handsome argyle-sock-clad bagpiper – or a gentle soul in a silk robe, standing in a bathroom with a semi-obvious erection, holding up a bar of soap. The viewer’s eye skipped all over but landed on the small bar of soap – the advertisement worked (although perhaps the gay community had a good laugh en route to purchasing a dozen Ivory Soap bars, for their eyes went elsewhere). A product-oriented society was born.
” His incredible drawing and painting ability, illuminated by his gay sexuality, brought a new aesthetic into advertising, bringing it very much into the new century. His work as a magazine illustrator and his vibrant, body conscious advertising usually for high-end luxury brands, created the prototype for the male sex symbol, his early work pre-dating the cinema, in the time before photography dominated the media. All of his Post covers from the early 1900s to the early 1940s were stylized vignettes, each painted in the same muted brown-and-red palette. But the nuances he captured – in such details as leather coats, athletes’ jerseys and the shiny skin of New Year’s cherubs – were luminescent. Apparently, he wiped oil on his models’ muscles (though not on the cherubs) to enhance those “male surfaces” he most admired.
He also often painted in a dark room by candlelight to underscore a model’s erotic qualities. His visual language, more than any of his contemporaries, encapsulates the sexual tensions of the 1920s, flapper liberties tamed by censorship Those magnificent young men form the heart of Leyendecker’s work, and through such respectable, mainstream accounts as Arrow or the men’s clothier B. Kuppenheimer & Co. Leyendecker was able to both make a good living and pull off the astounding feat of putting what in retrospect is so clearly homoerotic art smack-dab in front of the churchgoing American public. Leyendecker’s men eternally give one another penetrating looks inside, outdoors, and on deck, and they’re always thrusting elongated objects at happy angles from their bodies.
He never met a muscle that didn’t need to beef up, ripple, or glisten under his expert touch. In picture after picture, J.C.’s young women are snub-nosed and fairly innocuous (he always lamented his inability to truly capture feminine beauty, and an examination of his pictures shows there’s something in it – certainly his women are never as beautiful as his men are handsome) while his men are spectacularly good-looking … and obviously lusting after each other.
Beefy lifeguards ignore drowning women, a football star’s fans and teammates gaze upon him with something more than admiration, and literary magazines sport covers considerably more interesting than any ever found on Open Letters. Leyendecker was the first hugely successful American gay artist, but the truly remarkable thing is that he gained that success in large part by creating America’s first gay art. Nevertheless Leyendecker has received little scholarly attention with only one book published since his death (Michael Schau, J. C. Leyendecker – New York, 1974). A new study by Laurence and Judy Cutler seeks to rectify this neglect (J. C. Leyendecker: American Imagist – New York, 2009)
Part of the problem is Leyendecker’s homosexuality. As Cutler & Cutler point out, Leyendecker stayed away from the public eye to protect his homosexual private life at a time when it would have caused him professional and social persecution. He also purged any reference to homosexuality from his archive, making it doubly difficult for the historian to reconstruct the artist’s intentions. Indeed Beach had instructions to destroy everything J.C. left behind – and destroyed quite a bit before stayed his hand. In the 1980s, the homoerotic subtext in his work was recognized by gay subculture and he was immediately embraced as an artistic forefather. However, the homosexual branding has kept Leyendecker in a private drawer as a transitional but not conclusive figure in gay America’s coming of age.