If one artist is responsible for “inventing” the image of the American male in the early Twentieth Century, surely it was Joseph Christian Leyendecker, born on this day in 1874.
Leyendecker was born in Montabaur, Germany and his family immigrated to Chicago when the boy was eight. In time, he got work in an engraving company, after which he enrolled in the Art Institute of Chicago. With his brother, Frank Xavier, also an artist, Leyendecker spent time in Paris, studying at the Académie Julian. Here he was exposed to—and influenced by—the Masters of late Nineteenth Century graphic arts: Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Jules Chéret, and Czech artist Alphonse Mucha.
When the brothers returned to Chicago, Joseph was assigned his first big commission: a cover for the Saturday Evening Post. This was the first of 322 covers Leyendecker would do for them over the next 44 years.
Within a year, Joseph moved to New York with his brother and sister. He got work immediately, illustrating advertisements for the fashion industry—most notably for Arrow Shirts. Leyendecker created the “Arrow Collar Man” using a model named Charles Beach. Charles was to become Leyendecker’s favorite model—and his lover for the rest of his life. Leyendecker’s career rocketed and they bought a fancy home in New Rochelle where Charles would organize lavish parties attended by New York’s swankiest. The Arrow Collar Man became an icon of American male imagery. It is said that he got more fan mail than Rudolph Valentino!
If the Twenties were non-stop, the Thirties proved more challenging. After the stock market crash in 1929, Leyendecker’s commissions became less-frequent. Apparel businesses were hurting and the times called for a different, less-luxurious “look” in advertising. The Saturday Evening Post commissions—covers and interior illustrations—continued, though less-frequently. And, like during World War I, Leyendecker was commissioned to create recruitment posters and savings bonds advertisements during WWII.
Leyendecker’s legacy is formidable. Besides defining the “Ideal American Man” for the first half of the 20th Century, the artist also created the notion of the New Year’s Baby, flowers for Mother’s Day and firecrackers on the Fourth of July. And it was J. C. Leyendecker who gave us the modern image of Santa Claus—a jolly, fat man dressed in fur-trimmed red.
Artist Norman Rockwell, a friend and great admirer of Leyendecker, was highly-influenced by his friend’s artistic style and it shows in Rockwell’s work. As a result, Leyendecker’s influence on illustration continued long after his death, making him, perhaps, the artist with the greatest impact on American visual culture in the Twentieth Century.
Joseph Christian Leyendecker died at home in New Rochelle—with Charles Beach at his side—on 25 July 1951. He is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York City. Charles Beach died a few months later.
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