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November 17, 2008

Controversial J.C. Leyendecker

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

The latest addition to my art bookcase is this book about famed illustrator J.C. (Joseph Christian) Leyendecker (1874-1951), creator of the Arrow Collar/Arrow Shirt man and more Saturday Evening Post covers than Norman Rockwell.


Both the book and Leyendecker are controversial. Leyendecker was almost surely (evidence is circumstantial, but strong) a closet homosexual who lived with Charles Beach, the main model for the Arrow advertisements (that's him in the book cover illustration, above). In this autobiographical book, his fellow New Rochelle resident Norman Rockwell devotes Chapter 9 to Leyendecker's odd living arrangement that included his brother, illustrator F.X. Leyendecker who died of dissipation in 1924, and never-married sister Mary who left the mansion shortly after F.X.'s death. Eventually Beach gained control of most household affairs, turning an already shy Joe Leyendecker into a recluse.

As for the book, one Amazon reviewer felt that the narrative contained too much material about Leyendecker's sexual orientation and its implications. I agree. Perhaps Leyendecker material is lacking, so they had to pad the book with speculation and possibly exaggerated claims about homosexual subtexts in his art. My reaction was that this material was overly pro-homosexual. On the other hand, one Amazon reviewer characterized it as homophobic. Whatever.

I would have loved more information regarding how he constructed his paintings. The authors, active in the illustration art gallery scene, could have contributed their views or else might have brought in professional illustrators to assess some of Leyendecker's finished works and studies. But that's just me; I'm interested in how stuff gets done.

A possibly more serious problem is that the book contains some images that are not Leyendecker's. The double-spread on pages 98-99 has been cited in Amazon reviews and a painted sketch of a man's head on page 75 has been called into question, probably legitimately.

On the plus side, the book has plenty of examples of Leyendecker's work. My main quibble here is that the authors tended to full-page too many New Year's magazine cover illustrations featuring baby 1934 or whatever. One or two would have been fine, but I wanted to see other subjects in full page rather than thumbnail format (many pages are of small images of magazine covers).

My conclusion is that the book is worth buying, but only at the Amazon price, not the list price.

More Internet information on Leyendecker includes this page by Bill Plante and David Apatoff's fascinating presentation of Leyendecker studies here (scroll down to June 17, 2007).

Here are a few examples of Leyendecker's work for those of you who aren't familiar with it.


Study of drum major - no date

Arrow advertisement - 1930

Couple descending staircase - 1932

Matters of overt/covert homosexual symbolism aside, just how should an artist portray men in advertising? (I used the word "artist" in the illustrator/Leyendecker sense, but the issue is the same when selecting photography models.) A typical semi-slobby guy isn't likely to enhance a product's image, in most cases -- especially in the Arrow case of dress shirts or other fashion-related products. On the other hand, picturing a man as "too pretty" raises the homosexuality matter which also can create a product image problem.

Given Leyendecker's popularity with the general public along with his long run with the Arrow account, I think he threaded the male image needle pretty well. Yes, his men were elegant, but they weren't sissies either. Posing them alongside attractive women also kept things straight, if you'll pardon the expression.



posted by Donald at November 17, 2008


What medium are the studies and the paintings in? Oil? Tempera? Just wondering.

Also, what is the connection between Mannerist elongation (apparently still beloved some centuries later by Leyendecker and many others) and fashion? Obviously, elongation, tallness, and slenderness both in the sixteenth century and today suggests elegance, but why?

Is it a cultural thing? Could it be a relic of the fact that aristocrats, owing to better childhood diets, were often a good six inches or more taller than their subjects, a trait visible in England as late as the 18th century?

Is it a biological thing? Of the three major physical "builds" of humanity, fashion and art generally prefer ectomorphs (long-legged people, often of more slender builds) to mesomorphs (muscular, big-chested, long-waisted and short-legged people) or to endomorphs (rounder people). I've often wondered why this should be so, and it apparently has been so since at least the Greeks, so perhaps it reflects some underlying biological issue. Don't know what it is, but am definitely open to suggestions on this.

Any thoughts?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 17, 2008 7:17 PM

I've always had a theory that elegance lies far away from utility. Tall skinny people are nice to look at but that build is not suited to most types of physical labor. (I should know, I'm tall and skinny and my neck and back ache constantly.) If a society can sustain a class of people who don't do physical labor, well, then that society is successful and those of that non-physical class are the most successful in that society.

I'm sure there are books and books that already explain this, I'm not that smart as to have stumbled upon something new, I just wouldn't know where to find them.

Posted by: JV on November 17, 2008 7:29 PM

Friedrich -- From picture captions in the book, it seems that most of his work, including studies, was done in oil. Some was tempera, gouache and even watercolor.

The book also states (p. 56) that he used a special, secret medium based on linseed oil and turpentine that caused the oil paint to dry quickly. I vaguely recall Rockwell mentioning that he tried something like that for his own work, but didn't find it worthwhile. (I might be confusing this story with one Rockwell made regarding a different artist -- so beware!)

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on November 17, 2008 7:31 PM

I don't know, Donald. Those guys look pretty gay to me.

Posted by: Sister Wolf on November 17, 2008 11:26 PM

I don't know, Donald. Those guys look pretty gay to me. -- Sister Wolf

Yeah, Tom of Finland has nothing on this guy for "g a y f a c e".

Posted by: Reg C├Žsar on November 18, 2008 2:43 AM

"I've always had a theory that elegance lies far away from utility. Tall skinny people are nice to look at but that build is not suited to most types of physical labor."

You are focusing on the wrong type of physical labor. Tall and skinny is great for hunting and following game, not tilling the earth or breaking rocks. Think throwing, striding and striking, not digging and lifting.

Posted by: Anonymous on November 18, 2008 9:25 AM

There definitely is a gay "type" to his men--Rupert Everett in his younger days was its living embodiment. Yet I find this artwork ridiculously appealing (or appealingly ridiculous). The absurdly chiseled physiques married to the languorous expressions, the louche postures that are somehow wholesome and all-American at the same time. It's all very archetypal and evocative. Those SatEvePost editors sure knew what they were going for, didn't they?

Posted by: Steve on November 18, 2008 12:29 PM

Oddly, the postures of the men seem gay too, not just the faces. Given that homosexuality is held to be some kind of modern construct, it appears to have been, if not fully constructed, then at least in possession of a "laid" foundation, pardon the expression, by 1930.

That drum major(ette)? Man, that is the gayest stance seen outside of Larry Craig's toilet stall!

Posted by: PatrickH on November 18, 2008 2:40 PM

Gay, schmay, the man was an exquisite artist who the crude chiseling made popular by cubism and refined it into something rich, sensuous, lighthearted, yet geometrically dense, and possessed of a formal gravity. His most brilliant formal innovation was probably the "slash" brushstrokes he used to indicate reflected light (that light which appears on the far side of a shadow on a dimensional object). It was certainly his signature gesture. But the design, the merry interplay of curve and curl and bladelike edge was pure choreography. I believe he has a very distant but worthy descendent in Wayne Thiebaud, who is also capable of applying a sensuous load of paint with a certain cruel abandon. I look forward to reading this book!

Posted by: Faze on November 18, 2008 8:40 PM

He's terrific, Faze, I was just responding to Donald's remark that the men didn't look like sissies.

Gay schmay, absolutely.

Posted by: Sister Wolf on November 18, 2008 10:00 PM

The couples in those paintings are so narcissistic looking. They each stroke a grand pose as if saying "I am the star of the night." In each other's eyes, they were nothing but a decoration.

Posted by: Pupu on November 18, 2008 11:45 PM

Pupu, I remember seeing a cartoon (New Yorker, Punch?) of two gay parents beaming over their precocious gay boy, whose report card (from the Alfred Douglas Elementary School) had subjects like:

Wardrobe Selection
Hissy Fits
Entrances and Exits
Striking Poses

...and so on. The young apple of his fathers' eyes was the proud possessor of, ah, straight, ahem, A's.

The men in the art--the women too--are all clearly grads of the same school. So Sister, nothing to apologize for. Leyendecker may be as great an artist as Faze says...I've got nothing to say to "possessed of a formal gravity"...but, and, truly, really, his men LOOK GAY.

Who you gonna believe, Sister? Faze, or your lyin' eyes? (And lovely eyes they are!)

Yours, and Pupu's, as always, in admiration,

Posted by: PatrickH on November 19, 2008 12:26 PM

Leyendeckers technique was derived from how he learned how to draw. He worked in an engraving house for a while as a teenager (line drawing), then studied in Paris at the Acadamie Julian. The academic technique in the day was basically line drawing from the model (no smudging). Then he painted in tempera, which drys quickly and is applied oftentimes with a "hatching" (short, linear strokes) technique. His oil painting is the same kind of drawing technique, just done with oil paint.

As far as the book goes, the images are great to see. But the Cutlers greatly skewed the book's content to emphasize Leyendecker's sexuality, which is hardly evident in any of his work. They did it to be trendy and sell the book to gays. I disliked the way they treated Rockwell, as some sort of thief, when he was a good friend of J.C.'s and one of the few that Leyendecker had.

Leyendecker's personal family life was pretty tragic. Charles Beach was an absolute jerk for coming between J.C. and his family. Rockwell's description of Beach as a "big, white cold, clinging insect" is right on the money.

Great artist. Nice images in the book. Horribly slanted text by a couple of pretenders.

Posted by: BTM on November 20, 2008 1:18 PM

Hello Leyendecker Blogsters: Judy and Laurence Cutler authored this most-recent Leyendecker book. JCL would be mortified with this recently published book on his life. BTM - you are absolutely correct! The horribly slanted text was created by a couple of pretenders - who tried to fill in the historical blanks with fabricated stories and unfounded statements. I personally felt like I was "punked" - especially after noting the biographical mistakes and the phony paintings. I checked my files and located the published versions and everyone is correct when they identify certain paintings as fake or counterfeit. It is too bad that these authors ruined their chance to produce the most accurate book to date. There are some nice images, but even some of the printing leaves me pretty cold. Don't pay retail - I have seen the book for $26-28 dollars on various internet merchandising sites. Of course you can always buy a copy directly from the Cutlers and they will sign it. I am surprised that they will actually attach their names to this book - a mockery of everything J. C. Leyendecker worked so hard to create. Shame on both of you, Judy & Laurence Cutler.

Posted by: Ronald Bartello on November 27, 2008 5:39 PM

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