J.C. Leyendecker: Illustrating American Traditions and Queer Coded Advertisements

For as long as I can remember I’ve always loved illustration art. Magazine covers in the pre-photography days have always enchanted with me with their idealistic images of seasonal celebrations, illustrated advertisements of rosey cheeked women whose lives are magically made better by whatever they are holding, all of it delightfully charming, while also making me feel painfully nostalgic for a moment that never quite existed nor could I have experienced. While Charles Dana Gibson remains my all time favorite illustration artist, J.C. Leyendecker is another favorite, and late last month Anaheim’s Muzeo unveiled an exhibit about him. While the name may not be familiar to you, if you’ve seen an issue of the Saturday Evening Post in the years before Norman Rockwell, or saw the 2013 version of The Great Gatsby, then you are familiar with his work.

Myself standing in front of the gallery's title wall, which reads "Poses Figures and Glances"

While J.C. Leyendecker’s images are pure Americana, he wasn’t born here. Joseph Christian Leyendecker was born March 23, 1874 in Montbaur Germany to Peter, a brewer, and Elizabeth. Shortly after the birth of their fourth child, Frank, the family immigrated to the United States in 1882, moving to Chicago where Elizabeth’s uncle lived and operated a brewing company. J.C. was artistic from a young age, drawing and painting on his books, and cloth that covered the kitchen table. When he was 11 he felt the family’s beer was lacking a unique label, and he designed one. It was rejected, but he was called back to design one again in 1889 after he had reached great success.

At age 16, J.C. apprenticed at an engraver, and then went on to study at the Chicago Art Institute. While at school, J.C. illustrated 60 images for a bible, his first commercial work. In the spring of 1896 J.C. won a cover design contest for the magazine The Century, garnering him attention Under the tutelage of John H. Vanderpool, J.C. was encouraged to attend Académie Julian in Paris, and eventually J.C. saved enough for not just himself, but also his brother Frank, a fellow illustrator, to attend.

In September of 1896, the Leyendecker brothers arrived in Paris to attend Académie Julian, where they were exposed to other commercial artists such as Henri de Toulous-Lautrec, and another personal favorite of mine, Alphonse Mucha. While in Paris J.C. learned of the popularity of the print, and how advertising could be art for the masses, meanwhile Frank took up drinking and drugs, which translated into a lifetime of struggle with addiction. J.C. enjoyed an exhibition of his own at the Salon du Champs de Mars before the brothers returned to Chicago and set up shop, here both would produce work that graced the covers of various magazines. On May 20, 1899, J.C. first Saturday Evening Post cover hit newsstands it was to be a relationship that would continue for decades. The time in Chicago was short lived, and in 1900 the brothers, and their sister, Augusta Mary, moved to New York City, where she acted as live in maid, cook, and business manager to the brothers.

Both brothers continued to work as commercial illustrators, but Frank’s addiction left him with an inability to finish some pieces, which J.C. would complete. But it is thanks to Frank that J.C. met the love of his life. Many other artists resided in the same building as the Leyendecker studio, and there was a constant stream of models in and out. Charles Beach was one such model, who arrived on the brothers’ doorstep and was hired by Frank on a day when J.C. was out in 1903.

Standing six foot two inches, Beach was the ideal man, described by Normal Rockwell as “tall, powerfully built and extraordinarily handsome.” He became not only J.C.’s model, but his lover, and the first sex icon in advertising. Beginning in 1905, J.C. created advertisements for Arrow Shirt Collars, with Beach becoming the Arrow Collar Man, soon his face was gracing multiple magazine pages. And while Arrow did advertise in Times Square with a large lighted sign, there is no evidence that I could find that Beach’s face appeared on a massive billboard like that in Baz Luhrmann’s version of The Great Gatsby.

Screencap from The Great Gatsby, overall view of Times Square, featuring a large lit sign reading "Arrow Collars" and a large image of the Arrow Collar Man

Through 1930 Beach was the Arrow Collar Man, and it’s said that Leyendecker’s ads increased sales to $32 million a year. With numbers like that, there is no denying the allure of the Arrow Collar Man; women wanted him, and men wanted to be him. From small quarter page ads, to full two page spreads, Beach was everywhere, so much so that he was even recognized in public.

An ad featuring two well dressed men, one holds a golf club, the other reclines in a window seat.

A collection of framed Arrow Collar ads from magazines.

Close-up of a two page advertisement for Arrow Collars featuring two well dressed men seated looking at each other.

Preferring to only used live models, J.C. eventually met Phyllis Frederic, and her father, both of whom he used as models. Out of fear of his sexuality being made public, J.C. sought permission to marry Phyllis, but her father said no, citing the age difference. This, as far as I read, is the only attempt J.C. made at marrying.

Due to the homophobic nature of the times, Leyendecker’s advertisements could not be overtly homosexual, but that didn’t stop him from providing images that spoke to both the heterosexual and homosexual shopper. Some of these works feature what has become known as “the invisible woman.” A woman who is present in the advertisement, often accompanied by at least two men, but is not involved, engaged or even looked at by a man. Often two men are looking directly at each other.

A two page ad featuring three well dressed men, and a nearly new, nymph like woman with red hair.

J.C.’s most prominent works were the 322 covers he did for the Saturday Evening Post, a relationship that lasted 44 years. Some months J.C. painted multiple covers for them. J.C. demanded he keep each of the paintings, which were returned to him after their cover use. Of the 322 cover paintings, it is said that J.C. only gave away two of them, one of which was to Neil Hamilton, who had modeled for J.C. multiple times. The gifted painting featured Hamilton dressed as a WWI Dough Boy. Hamilton would go on to become a prolific character actor, including portraying Commissioner Gordon in the 1960s Batman series.

Various covers of magazines done by J.C. Leyendecker.

The most popular of J.C.’s Saturday Evening Post covers were his holiday ones, and each time he produced one, subscriptions went up. His covers would also go on to create holiday traditions and iconography that continue to this day. The idea of the New Year being represented as a baby existed prior to the turn of the 20th century, but it was J.C. who popularized it, with his numerous New Year covers featuring chubby cheeked babes, beginning in 1906, and coincidentally ending in 1943 with J.C. final cover for The Saturday Evening Post. J.C. is credited with the idea of flowers as a Mother’s Day gift.  When President Woodrow Wilson signed the holiday into law in 1914, and J.C. was tasked with making a cover fitting for the holiday. What he produced was a bellhop gifting a pot of flowers, and thus a tradition was born. He even popularized firecrackers for Independence Day and football for Thanksgiving, proving how compelling his work, and how popular the magazine was. While Haddon Sundblom is often credited with the iconic image of Santa Claus, as I wrote about awhile back, that is far from accurate, and many of J.C.’s Christmas covers from the 1920s showcase a jolly, rosy cheeked, “bowl full of jelly” Santa, inspiring Sundblom, and cementing our current image of Santa.

In 1905 J.C.’s mother died, and the trio of siblings moved from Manhattan to New Rochelle, with their father soon joining them. But J.C. continued to work and often stay in the city to be with Beach. As J.C. rose to fame, Frank became known as “The Lesser Leyendecker” and between 1912 and 1919 he only did six magazine covers and nothing else. Like J.C., Frank was also gay, however, details of his relationships were not disclosed in the sources I read, nor did his works appear to be queer coded as some of J.C.’s were.

A large reprint of an image of a well dressed man and woman in evening attire.

In 1914, J.C. built a large house along what he dubbed Mount Tom Road, for himself and his siblings. The house featured various architectural styles, and had a large garden, koi fish pond, gazebo, and waterfall, with the house and gardens tended to be staff. Just a few years later, in 1916, J.C.’s father passed away, and Beach moved into the home. Despite the house having studio space for both J.C. and Frank, J.C. continued to go into the city with Beach for work.

Near the eve of Prohibition, J.C. moved studios again, and befriended Texas Guinan, an actress turned “Queen of the Night Clubs” who opened speakeasy in the building. Here, J.C. brushed elbows with the likes of Clara Bow, Gloria Swanson, Rudolph Valentino, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Eventually parties took place at the Mount Tom Road mansion, which were covered by gossip writer Walter Winchell, setting the tone for the roaring 20s.

After a falling out between the siblings in 1923, one that resulted in Augusta Mary spitting in Beach’s face, both Frank and Augusta Mary moved out. Frank into Norman Rockwell’s New Rochelle Studio, and Augusta Mary into a hotel. Frank continued to abuse alcohol and drugs, passing away on April 18, 1924 at 45. While there are various claims on his cause of death, from drug overdose to suicide, the order of internment reads “cerebral hemorrhage.” That December a memorial exhibition was held to honor him and his work.

Norman Rockwell was in awe of J.C., asking him for advice, connections, and would go on to fashion himself after J.C. A change in editors at The Saturday Evening Post resulted in Rockwell replaced J.C. as the prominent cover illustrator. However, J.C. still created the most number of covers, at 322, and Rockwell one behind at 321.

As commissions began to fade, so did the income, and J.C. let his household staff go, with just him and Beach residing in the 19-room home. In 1951, while sitting in his garden, drink in hand, J.C. passed away with Beach at his side of an acute coronary occlusion, thus ending their 49 year long relationship. J.C. split his estate 50/50 between his sister and Beach. Prior to his death, J.C. had asked Beach to destroy his work, and while Beach destroyed personal documents, he kept many of the paintings and sketches. Many sources say Beach and Augusta Mary later sold works at a yard sale, with sources saying works went for 50 cents to seven dollars. However The Post notes that paintings were sold for $75, with no note if that is a number made after taking inflation into account.

Sources seem to disagree on the number of attendees at Leyendecker’s funeral, some say five, others say seven, but it was a small number, including Norman Rockwell who also acted as one of the pallbearers. Earl Rowland, a fan of J.C.’s learned that years after his death, he still lacked marker, and attempted to raise funds for one. Augusta Mary responded by finally providing one. Rowland continued to contact her, asking her to donate what original J.C. works she still had to the San Joaquin Pioneer and Historical Museum (today the Haggin Museum in Stockton) and eventually she did, where they remain.

In 1953 an artist rented J.C.’s old studio, uncovering more of his work, which was later sold, Charles Beach died, and The Mount Tom Road home sold, becoming Mount Tom Day Camp in 1955, which it remains to this day, and in 1957 Augusta Mary passed away.

For such a prolific artist who had America in the palm of his hand to mold as he liked, Leyendecker remains relatively unknown today, even though undoubtedly everyone has seen an image of his at one point or another. His legacy lives on in our holiday traditions and early examples of queer work. Those wanting to see some of his work can at the Museum of American Illustration in Newport, Rhode Island, which has the most number of original works, and as mentioned earlier, the Haggin Museum also has some on display. As noted in placards of the Muzeo exhibit, the Normal Rockwell Museum also keeps some pieces (including the singular original that is on loan) although I am unsure if they are on display.

A study of a partially dressed man, touching his sock.

The sad truth is that details of Leyendecker’s life are difficult to pin down. Leyendecker gave few interviews, and the loss of his personal documents is one history will never recover from. Homophobia kept (and continues to keep) people from being their true selves, and leaves those looking back at history wanting. This showcases that when we stop punishing people for being themselves, we learn, flourish, and history and our world will be better for it.

For those in, near or visiting the Anaheim area, you can view the exhibit through April 19 at the Muzeo, located at 241 S. Anaheim Boulevard. For details, including ticket purchasing, please visit their website. Unable to visit or simply want to learn more? I recommend checking out the short documentary Coded: The Hidden Love of J.C. Leyendecker, available on Paramount+.

Overall view of the gallery.

What’s Nearby?

Anaheim Packing House

Linbrook Bowl

Cutler, Laurence S & Judy Goffman. J.C. Leyendecker American Imagist. Abrams, New York, Abrams. 2008. Print.
J.C. Leyendecker.” The Saturday Evening Post. Accessed 7 March 2023.
Silva, Clark. “J.C. Leyendecker: Figures, Poses, and Glances.” (2023) [Brochure]

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