The Great Leyendecker: Largely forgotten illustrator created iconic American images

Last modified: Friday, June 05, 2015
*Archive Article*
He created the annual image of “The New Year’s baby,” introduced the idea of gifting wives and moms with flowers on Mother’s Day and designed what we know as the modern day chubby and red-cheeked Santa Claus.

Through his prolific magazine illustrations, he linked Thanksgiving with homecoming football games and, best known for numerous paintings of the romantic Arrow Shirt Collar Man, he set fashion trends. He threw lavish parties on his sprawling estate where you would find the beautiful people from “The Jazz Age,” ranging from the Astors and Vanderbilts to silent film heartthrob Rudolph Valentino and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. There’s a strong argument to be made that, in 1924, when Fitzgerald wrote “The Great Gatsby” he modeled his lead character on the illustrator Joseph Christian Leyendecker (1874-1951).

Now through June 14, more than 300 of Leyendecker’s printed cover illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post magazine as well as 26 original canvases are on view at Stockbridge’s Norman Rockwell Museum.

“Each of the paintings is really a magnificent object in and of itself,” Rockwell Museum staffer Stephanie Plunkett, the exhibit’s curator said on opening night. “He was a great designer as well as a great painter.”

Once a household name and as ubiquitous as Oprah, Leyendecker commercially illustrated the American scene, from corn flakes, cigarettes and high-end apparel to Pierce-Arrow automobile ads. A mentor to Norman Rockwell, today he’s known primarily only to collectors, museums and art students.

“He’s more of an historical figure,” Plunkett said. “The generation that knew him has mostly passed now. Rockwell was much more contemporary. He kept working until the 1970s. He, in general, is just closer to our times.”

Leyendecker’s obscurity may undergo a sea change. His life reads like a Fitzgerald novel with a meteoric career and a lifetime secret that, if revealed, would have crashed it to the ground.

“The story itself, his history is very illusive,” Laurence Cutler told an overflow audience on opening night. He and his wife Judy, are the authors of the definitive, 256-page hardbound “J. C. Leyendecker: American Imagist” (Abrams; $50).

“We found very little material available,” Cutler said. “Joe Leyendecker was a homosexual and he left instructions after his death to burn all his correspondence.”

The illustrator died at a time when a notorious witch-hunt for communists and homosexuals, (“The Lavender Scare”) conducted by Senator Joseph McCarthy, was gaining momentum. Had he been known to be gay during his lifetime, Leyendecker’s career would have been severely compromised. Consigning his letters and notes to flames spared his friends from dangerous innuendos.

A red-hot career

Leyendecker’s family, with his sister and two brothers, immigrated to this country from Germany in 1882. At age 15, he was an unpaid apprentice at a Chicago engraving company before graduating to a princely sum of two dollars a week. He displayed a brilliant skill and was illustrating Bibles by age 20.

In 1896, he won first prize in a magazine cover design contest besting a 26-year-old Maxfield Parrish.

“You see an absolutely brilliant destiny,” Judy Cutler said, in describing the work. “The second thing that this contest did was, it brought advertising into the realm of high art, that it was a viable and respected pursuit.”

That same year he and his brother Frank, also an accomplished illustrator, graduated from studies at Paris’ Academie Julian. Leyendecker’s successful magazine illustration, a woman surrounded by flowers in the Art Nouveau style, had become a popular print before their arrival.

He became fast friends with Art Nouveau founder Alphonse Mucha, whose intricate images underwent a revival in the 1960s, owing in part to his designs of voluptuous women on Job cigarette rolling paper covers. J.C. was deeply influenced by Parisian poster art and in the States, he later revolutionized magazine cover design by making images more prominent than typeface.

While Leyendecker was studious in The City of Lights, brother Frank, who was also gay, caroused with its seedier denizens, who introduced him to hard drugs.

By the turn of the century, the two worked in a New York studio and Leyendecker began a 44-year relationship with the Saturday Evening Post. For a late December cover of 1906, he introduced “The New Year’s baby,” which would take on various identities.

Commemorating the Wright brothers’ success in powered flight, an oversized, nude and somewhat terrified infant is at the throttle of a biplane. In 1911, years before Congress approved women’s suffrage, a long-haired toddler holds a “Votes for Women” placard. In wartime, the infant would hold a rifle.

Although trivia fans have often been led to the idea that our popular representation of Santa Claus derives from a Coca-Cola illustrator, it was Leyendecker who popularized the quintessential chubby, apple-cheeked, bearded man in red.

Maintaining a studio in New York, Leyendecker designed a spacious home in New Rochelle that he shared with his sister Mary and brother Frank. Situated on nine acres, the elegant gardens were lively with roaming chickens, geese, ducks and turkeys. His parties were extravagant and frequently received press coverage. As with Fitzgerald’s character Jay Gatsby, Leyendecker often remained unobtrusive, studying his guests for later artistic use.

A slow spiral

Despite showing a talent equal to his brother, Frank labored in his shadow. He was also in the spiral of drug and alcohol addiction. Despite this, the two collaborated on numerous projects and Frank held the Collier’s magazine account for 15 years.

“Frank liked to ‘overwork’ his paintings and spent so much time in detailing and making it so perfect that he lost commissions,” Judy Cutler said.

Adding to this conflict in the Leyendecker home, Leyendecker’s model and lover Charles Beach moved in. The muscular Canadian had become the trademark “Arrow Shirt Collar Man” and, at the peak of his popularity was receiving more mash letters from women than Valentino. At 6 feet, 2 inches, the Adonis towered over Leyendecker and, in time, alienated his brother and sister.

Rockwell, who idolized Leyendecker and was a lifelong friend, described Beach as “a real parasite — like some huge white, cold insect clinging to Joe’s back.”

Several years ago, speaking at Stockton California’s Haggin Museum, the largest repository of Leyendecker art, director Tod Ruhstaller said that Beach wasn’t just Leyendecker’s “companion and lover, but also he was a business partner, model and he did a great deal for his career, depending on who you speak to …”

After six edgy years with Beach, Frank and his sister moved out. Within a year, at the age of 45, Frank, in progressively poor health and said to be broken hearted, died suddenly.

Following World War I, the vogue for detachable shirt collars vanished and in 1931 Leyendecker’s wildly successful Arrow Shirt ads ended. The Great Depression axed advertising revenue significantly and, in the mid-1940s, a new editor at the Saturday Evening Post found his illustrations old-fashioned.

Leyendecker laid off his house staff and he and Beach lived out their lives in relative seclusion. The illustrator died at the estate at the age of 77.

In Fitzgerald’s novel, some nine people attend Jay Gatsby’s funeral. One is the man with the owl-eyed glasses. He tells Gatsby’s friend Nick Carraway that he wasn’t able to attend the wake at the house.

“Neither could anyone else.”

“Go on!” He started. “Why my God! They used to go there by the hundreds.”

Only seven people attended Leyendecker’s funeral. One of them was Norman Rockwell.

Life into film

Leyendecker left his estate and the equivalent, in today’s dollars, of $590,000 to be divided between his surviving sister and Beach. His longtime lover and model also had a drug addiction and sold many of Leyendecker’s works to support his habit. At his yard sales, Leyendecker’s painting studies could be bought for less than a dollar. At auction, original magazine cover oil paintings could be had for $75. Beach died just one year after Leyendecker’s passing.

There may be a well-deserved resurgence in popularizing the life and work of an illustrator who influenced so much of America’s pop culture. Laurence Cutler explained that he’s been approached on different occasions by three movie actors interested in purchasing rights to their book.

Plunkett said that she hoped museum visitors would appreciate “a recognition of an artist who was a great visual communicator, who really both reflected his age but also shaped this idea of American Inspiration.”

Standing alongside several of Leyendecker’s canvases, she concluded “All of these, they’re all ideas of what people could be.”

“J.C. Leyendecker and The Saturday Evening Post” continues through June 14 at the Norman Rockwell Museum. Open May through Oct. from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission: adults, $18; college students with ID, $10; ages 6 to 18, $6.

Directions: The museum is less than three miles from downtown Stockbridge. Signs direct motorists to Route 102 west and then Route 183 south. The museum is a half-mile on your left.

Don Stewart is a freelance writer who lives in Plainfield. He has written for The Recorder since 1994.