The highlight of my visit to New York was seeing the wonderful exhibit of paintings by Joseph Christian Leyendecker at the New York Historical Society. (Followed by my tour of the Society's Tiffany lamps on the fourth floor, more about that tomorrow.)
The painting above, In the Yale Boathouse, is one of seven works he created for the July 1905 issue of Scribner's Magazine, illustrating Ralph D. Paine's article "A Victory Unforeseen."
Before there was Bruce Webber and Abercrombie & Fitch, Leyendecker created a Turn-of-the-Century standard of aspirational American male beauty. For me, "aspirational" is a key word. When I behold Leyendecker's riveting images, I often perceive a touch of sadness in his paintings. Why? I feel a (small) tingle of melancholy when I think of this genius artist—an immigrant, gay, shy, dark, not aristocratic—who gave birth to these preternatural gods: strapping, vigorous, handsome, entitled. These Ivy League men—the product of Leyendecker's imagination and longing—were everything he was not. In a way, these masculine deities became the fruit of Leyendecker's loins. (Or, if that's too vulgar, perhaps, Leyendecker's heart and hands.) If Leyendecker could not be one of these men, he could be surrounded by them. They owed him their very existence.
Much of Leyendecker's work was commercial—to be printed in advertising (like Arrow Shirt Collars) and periodicals (like The Saturday Evening Post). He had to be quick, confident and continuously giving the client something enticing. And Leyendecker was (did) all of these things. He was enormously successful, financially and reputationally. Seeing his wonderful original oil paintings, one can appreciate his spontaneousness, economy and mastery of his brush. Once photographed and printed, the rapid energy of his paintings was softened—smoothed-out, less frenzied. This makes a viewing of his original works (vs. the printed versions) such a revelatory (and energizing) experience.
Besides commercial fashion work, Leyendecker also painted recruiting and war bond characters for posters (for both World Wars). In these, as with his Arrow Shirt Collar advertisements, he often used his long-time partner, Charles Beach, as his model. They lived together for decades in New Rochelle. Their parties in the Twenties and Thirties were the place to see and be seen. The portrait above, an American World War One Sailor, used Charles Beach as its model.
The Leyendecker exhibit runs at the New York Historical Society through 13 August. It is well worth a trip.
Though our Greenwich Village store is now permanently closed, LEO Design is still alive and well! Please visit our on-line store where we continue to sell Handsome Gifts (www.LEOdesignNYC.com).
We also can be found in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania at The Antique Center of Strabane (www.antiquecenterofstrabane.com).
Or call to arrange to visit our Pittsburgh showroom (by private appointment only). 917-446-4248