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Along with Norman Rockwell, Leyendecker is a giant of magazine illustration and cover design. His style has been widely copied yet never equalled. It is a style now synonymous with style and elegance that personified the subjects he painted.
Joseph Christian Leyendecker (March 23, 1874 – July 25, 1951) was one of the pre-eminent American illustrators of the early 20th century. He is best known for his poster, book and advertising illustrations, the trade character known as The Arrow Collar Man, and his numerous covers for The Saturday Evening Post. Between 1896 and 1950, Leyendecker painted more than 400 magazine covers. During the Golden Age of American Illustration, for The Saturday Evening Post alone, J. C. Leyendecker produced 322 covers, as well as many advertisement illustrations for its interior pages. No other artist, until the arrival of Norman Rockwell two decades later, was so solidly identified with one publication. Leyendecker “virtually invented the whole idea of modern magazine design.”
Joseph Christian Leyendecker (‘J. C.’ or ‘Joe’) was born on March 23, 1874, in Montabaur, Germany, to Peter Leyendecker (1838–1916) and Elizabeth Oreseifen Leyendecker (1845–1905). He had three siblings: an older brother, Adolph A. Leyendecker (1869–1938); an older sister, Augusta Mary Leyendecker (1872–1957); and a younger brother, Frank Xavier Leyendecker (1876–1924).
In 1882, the Leyendecker family immigrated to Chicago, Illinois, where Elizabeth’s uncle had founded the successful McAvoy Brewing Company. After working in late adolescence for a Chicago engraving firm, J. Manz & Company, and completing his first commercial commission of 60 Bible illustrations for the Powers Brothers Company, J. C. sought formal artistic training at the school of the Chicago Art Institute.
After studying drawing and anatomy under John H. Vanderpoel at the Chicago Art Institute, J. C. and younger brother Frank enrolled in the Académie Julian in Paris for a year, where they were exposed to the work of Toulouse-Lautrec, Jules Chéret, and also Alphonse Mucha, a leader in the French Art Nouveau.
The 1920s were in many ways the apex of Leyendecker’s career, with some of his most recognizable work being completed during this time. Modern advertising had come into its own, with Leyendecker widely regarded as among the pre-eminent American commercial artists. This popularity extended beyond the commercial, and into Leyendecker’s personal life, where he and Charles Beach hosted large galas attended by people of consequence from all sectors. The parties they hosted at their New Rochelle home/studio were important social and celebrity making events.
As the 1920s marked the apex of J. C. Leyendecker’s career, so the 1930s marked the beginning of its decline. Around 1930-31, Cluett, Peabody, & Co. ceased using Leyendecker’s illustrations in its advertisements, now for shirts and ties as the collar industry seriously declined after 1921. During this time, the always shy Leyendecker became more and more reclusive, rarely speaking with people outside of his sister Mary Augusta and Charles (Frank had died in 1924 as a result of an addiction-riddled lifestyle). Perhaps in reaction to his almost all-pervasive widespread popularity in the previous decade, or as a result of the new economic reality following the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the number of commissions Leyendecker received steadily declined. In 1936, the editor at the Saturday Evening Post for all of Leyendecker’s career up to that point, George Horace Lorimer, retired, and was replaced by Wesley Winans Stout (1937–1942) and then Ben Hibbs (1942–1962), both of whom rarely commissioned Leyendecker to illustrate covers.
Leyendecker’s last cover for the Saturday Evening Post was of a New Year Baby for January 2, 1943, thus ending the artist’s most lucrative and celebrated string of commissions. New commissions continued to filter in, but slowly. Among the most prominent were posters for the United States Department of War, in which Leyendecker depicted commanding officers of the armed forces encouraging the purchases of bonds to support the nation’s efforts in World War II. Leyendecker died on July 25, 1951, at his estate in New Rochelle of an acute coronary occlusion.
Leyendecker was a chief influence upon, and friend of, Norman Rockwell, who was a pallbearer at Leyendecker’s funeral. In particular, the early work of Norman Rockwell for the Saturday Evening Post bears a strong superficial resemblance to that of Leyendecker. While today it is generally accepted that Norman Rockwell established the best-known visual images of Americana, in many cases they are derivative of Leyendecker’s work, or reinterpretations of visual themes established by Rockwell’s idol.
The visual style of Leyendecker’s art inspired the graphics in The Dagger of Amon Ra, a game for the PC. The museum in the game is named for Leyendecker, and the box art for the game is based on Leyendecker’s cover for the March 18, 1905 issue of the Saturday Evening Post.