J.C. Leyendecker: American Imagist

By Laurence S. Cutler and Judy Goffman CutlerIn cooperation with the National Museum of American IllustrationAbrams, 2008

The snootier set of art critics (to say nothing of art enthusiasts) need periodic reminding that thirty years before there were books printed with the movable type they so revere, there were illustrated books, and that absent the popularity of such xylographica, Gutenberg might have gone into millinery instead, and art critics, snooty and otherwise, would be forced to foist their half-formed frustrations in calligraphy. As long as there’ve been books as we know them, there’ve been illustrated books, and that gives illustrators – as they’re traditionally and artificially differentiated from artists – a mighty respectable pedigree.  

 Such a pedigree generally doesn’t help them get the respect they’ve earned, because they’re seen as guns for hire, prostituting the high and rarefied craft of painting in the pursuit of contracts, money, and a nice set of digs in Newport. The customary art world judgement is that these illustrators sold their artistic souls for the sake of being embraced immediately by an uncritical public. And it’s amazing how tenacious that judgement is; art school types will parrot it endlessly (while charging their brushes and turpentine with their Water Lilies-printed Visa cards) and never even consider defining their terms.So: a quick definition before we proceed to the best of all American illustrators – for the purposes of this essay (and, free of charge, life in general), “art” shall be defined as “any aesthetic representation designed to provoke an emotional response.” Try it out on the various bric-a-brac about your room there; you’ll find it applies equally well to painting, poetry, and pole-dancing. And it only took one simple nine-word phrase! Ah, if only all the philosophical quandaries of the late 20th century could be solved so easily!Of course they all can, but we’re dealing with painting right now, and because we’re talking about American illustration, specifically magazine illustration, we’re naturally dealing with the great J.C. Leyendecker.Not the name you were expecting, no doubt. “American” “magazine” and “illustration” traditionally add up to one name only: Norman Rockwell. We’ll get to him in due course, never fear. But our main focus – as Rockwell’s was – will be Leyendecker.He was born in Germany in 1874 and his family – parents, sister Mary, two brothers (also illustrators), Adolph and Francis, and himself – emigrated to Chicago when he was eight and set up a respectable middle class life. Young J.C. (“Joe” to his close friends – and much-later curators who wish to sound chummy) knew from the age of 15 that he wanted to be an artist and saved money assiduously for art school. Eventually he was able to attend both the Art Institute of Chicago and the Academie Julian in Paris and bring brother Francis along, and it was there the brothers learned the classic techniques that would distinguish both their work (and it was there Francis picked up both a taste for bohemian living and the drug and drink habits that would sap his creativity and eventually end his life). When the Leyendeckers returned to Chicago, 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 – and his work the most recognizable – commercial artist in the country. 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.

His life, his work, and that success form the subject of J.C. Leyendecker: American Imagist, a sumptuous and surely definitive portrait of the artist by Laurence S. Cutler and Judy Goffman Cutler. 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. As a result, as the Cutler’s point out, “there is no Leyendecker archive.” Indeed, the artist’s lover, main model, and live-in companion of 48 years, Charles Beach, had instructions to destroy everything J.C. left behind – and destroyed quite a bit before sentimentality stayed his hand. Leyendecker’s reputation dimmed in the latter decades of his life, and that process continued for decades after his death, so the Cutlers had quite a bit of work on their hands, assembling the material for this book:  

We rummaged through art research libraries, visited with his models, colleagues, aficionados, and collectors from Palm Beach to the Fiesole Hills where Leyendecker visited Michelangelo’s studio in 1897.

The resultant volume is a glowing testament to their efforts: here is the volume Leyendecker has deserved for fifty years.The Cutlers lay out almost the whole Leyendecker story for the appreciative reader (‘almost’ because this is after all an adulatory volume: no specific mention is made of Leyendecker’s various frolics in the New York demimonde, nor of course is there even the slightest allusion made to the existence of Leyendecker erotica; the book was in part created to compliment the Leyendecker collection of the National Museum of American Illustration, and so it impeccably behaves itself), giving the classic immigrant life-story of the man who “transformed society with the turn of a single page in a magazine.” Here are the young Leyendecker brothers, fresh-returned from Paris and experiencing an American artistic scene on the verge of exploding:

Joe and Frank settled into a rented apartment in Hyde Park and a studio in the Fine Arts Building, 410 South Michigan Avenue. Touted as the “Chicago Center for Creativity,” it was an important address for the arts. Isadora Duncan was dancing in a theater on the ground floor, L. Frank Baum was writing The Wizard of Oz upstairs, Frank Lloyd Wright settled his burgeoning architectural practice in a studio suite, and the Dial a noted intellectual magazine, was being published from the building as well. The Leyendecker’ tenth floor studio was a social magnet for emerging artists, some seeking Joe’s early fame to rub off on them.

Given their subject, the Cutlers must occasionally permit themselves a demure titter at some of the Warholesque situations on the tenth floor, noting, “Neighboring artists shared models with the brothers, which meant a seemingly endless train of attractive Greenwich Village lads parading through their chilly studio in the buff.” But the most important detail about that train of lads was the appearance of one lad in particular, the statuesque 17-year-old Beach, who so captivated the 28-year-old Leyendecker that he was instantly absorbed into both the artist’s life and his work. Beach became the model for Leyendecker’s most famous ad campaign, Cluett, Peabody & Company’s line of Arrow Shirts and Arrow Collars. J.C. lobbied the Arrow makers in 1905, envisioning for them an emblem, an “Arrow Collar Man” who would become one of the first brands in American history (just as Leyendecker’s prize-winning 1896 cover for Century magazine became the first piece of artwork manufactured separately for sale as a poster – the artist’s career was full of such firsts, as we’ll see). Beach’s face and form catapulted this brand to stratospheric heights; Arrow Shirts at one point comprised 96 percent of their market. “He set the standard for elegance,” our present writers tell us, “for what a sophisticated gentleman should not only look like, but be.”

The Cutlers are quick to point out the irony:

Charles Beach was not only Joe’s idea of the perfect man. Leyendecker’s advertisements for Arrow Collars and Arrow Shirts made him the paradigm for a nation. He was, in fact, the first American “culture hero.” Few, if any fans ever realized that their lofty ideal man was not only a homosexual but a kept man, the live-in lover of a famed artist who thrust himself into such an exalted status.

Basking in the prosperity accounts like Arrow brought, Leyendecker and Beach set up house in New Rochelle and 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 driving J.C.’s brother and sister away. Fear of public exposure (and also possibly love of Beach, one fears) prevented Leyendecker from putting up much resistance, and even after nearly a century, Beach’s shadow still falls on any account of the artist’s life. The Cutlers are the cheeriest, friendliest biographers any subject could ever draw in a lottery, but even they have nothing good to say about Beach, echoing such contemporaries as Rockwell, who commented, “And stupid. I don’t think I ever heard him say anything even vaguely intelligent.”Even the Cutlers’ account of Leyendecker’s final day, in the dilapidated New Rochelle mansion, long after lucrative commissions had dropped off, takes a second to side-swipe Beach as our hero in 1951 is plunging to the flagstones:

Undoubtedly dreaming of halcyon days, he [Leyendecker] felt a dull, throbbing pain in his forehead. He called out to Charles, drawing him from inept hedge-pruning. When the newspaper fell and the cocktail glass shattered on the slate terrace, Joe began mumbling inaudibly and slumped. Kneeling by his partner’s side, Charles took his pulse, ran to summon the doctor, and prepared another Chapman’s [a “Gatsby-worthy libation”]. Joe never got a chance to take another sip: he died in Charles’s still-strong arms, just minutes after the doctor arrived.

(Would the tragedy have been lessened, one wonders, if he’d been expertly pruning the hedges?)But even so, readers of J.C. Leyendecker: American Imagist won’t come away from the book thinking of Charles Beach as the villain of the piece. That role is reserved for somebody else, and as in all ripping good yarns, it’s the person you least suspect:

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.

And this was no mere mild osmosis! According to our authors, we’re well into All About Eve territory here:

Rockwell virtually did everything possible to imitate J.C. Leyendecker. 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 Joe 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. J.C. was by nature mild and accommodating, and 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 unmeditated 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 chiseled 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.

Leyendecker moved to New York in 1900, and for nearly 20 years displayed a canny (though discreet) self-promotion and a marvellous feel for the tastes of the times, although more for carefree elegance than the shadow of the First World War … his war-themed pictures feel more dutiful than inspired, although of course they provided ample opportunity for featuring magnificent young men in various states of composure or undress.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. 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 although the Cutlers defend him against his own charge, an examination of the 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.(Every fan will have a personal favorite; mine has to be the 1914 painting Men with Golf Clubs – two well-groomed Harvard undergrads calmly examining a new set of golf clubs, except the clubs are so obviously more than clubs, and the one roommate is examining something with a lot more intensity – and other emotions – than he is those clubs).


He created many other things too; the standard jolly, rotund iconography of Santa Claus we owe to him, and he popularized the giving of flowers on Mother’s Day, and he created the visual of a baby with a sash to signify the New Year. Circulation of The Saturday Evening Post reached two million largely on the strength of his popular holiday illustrations.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. His paying accounts dropped off, and he spent his final years in reduced circumstances, with no servants and Charles ineptly pruning the hedges. After J.C.’s death, Beach held a yard sale of many of his works, some priced at 50 cents (none sold for more than $7). A half-century of neglect settled in, from which Leyendecker’s work and reputation are only lately being rescued.Advertising and visual branding form so gigantic a part of Western society a century after Leyendecker invented them in their current forms that such a revival is long overdue, and the Cutlers do a fine job of helping it along with their beautifully illustrated book. If they occasionally go too far in defending illustrators – Imagists is the term they use – at the expense of non-commercial painters (their term for these is too funny not to let them debut it), it’s a natural touchiness:

Unlike easel artists, American Imagists were not merely inspired to paint by a white canvas, a luscious nude model, and a dusty bottle of absinthe.

This is a curious note to strike – even in the Cutlers extremely well-mannered book, one gets the impression the Leyendecker studio in the 1920s might have seen the occasional dusty bottle of absinthe (to say nothing of luscious nude models) – but perhaps it’s what’s needed after so many years of neglect. Leyendecker did what few artists ever do: he gave an entire era a way of thinking about itself. It would be nice, in light of that achievement, if more than just the cognoscenti knew his name.___Steve Donoghue owns and operates a sorghum mill outside of Gentry, Missouri; in the pre-dawn he reads from his library of over 40,000 books, and after the sun set he posts on his literary blog Stevereads.