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America's original magazine illustrator

J.C. Leyendecker inspired generations of artists

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January 29th, 2016
The Arrow Collar Man
The Arrow Collar Man

Today, the name Joseph Leyendecker is unfamiliar to nearly all but the most avid students of art and popular culture. Yet, in the early 1900s—in the midst of the golden age of magazine illustrators—the guy was a superstar.

Born in Germany in 1874, Joseph Christian Leyendecker immigrated to the United States with his parents and three siblings when he was eight years old. Settling in Chicago, Ill., the Leyendecker family quickly fell into the rhythms of American life.

Joseph, for one, enjoyed a pleasant childhood.

In some ways, he was no different from the other children in his community. Known to friends and relatives as “J.C.,” Leyendecker went to school and socialized with his peers; but it was his great artistic talent that set him apart from the rest.

To be sure, the kid could draw, and he pursued his gift with vigor.

Young ambition

Leyendecker started working for a Chicago-based engraving firm when he was in his late teens. Here, he completed his first professional commission, a set of 60 Bible illustrations for the Powers Brothers Company.

Despite his success in the new job, the ambitious and dashingly handsome artist wanted more for himself. He was good, but he realized that he could be even better.

And so, Leyendecker enrolled in the prestigious Chicago Art Institute and studied anatomy and illustration under John Vanderpoel, an artist renowned for his expertise in drawing the human figure. Upon completing his training, J.C. packed his bags and moved to Paris, where he spent another year of study at the Academie Julian.

In 1899, he returned to Chicago, opening a studio in the Fine Arts Building, located in the city’s historic Michigan Boulevard District. Soon after, he landed his first project: a cover illustration for one of the hottest magazines in the country, The Saturday Evening Post.

Leyendecker was just 25. 

Thus began an artistic career that spanned over four decades, setting a standard to which future commercial illustrators would aspire. It wasn’t long before young J.C. ranked among the nation’s leading illustrators for magazines and advertising.

Within a year of opening his Chicago studio, Leyendecker had relocated to New York City to be in the heart of the commercial art industry. For the next 20 years, he worked at a feverish pace in order to supply the demand that matched his meteoric rise in popularity, making him a fortune in the process.

While he was responsible for time-honored annual characters like The Post’s New Year’s Baby, the majority of J.C.’s work depicted the idyllic male—tall, chiseled, and debonair. His renderings of the human form were masterful, not only for their anatomical precision but also the emotional depth that he conveyed through a subject’s posture or facial expression.

The Arrow Collar Man

Not surprisingly, ad agencies immediately noticed this and hired Leyendecker to illustrate numerous men’s fashion campaigns, one of which resulted in his most famous artistic creation—the Arrow Collar Man.

In spite of his remarkable talent, however, the ceaseless flow of commissions that had made Leyendecker wealthy, by the late 1920s, had slowed to a trickle and, by the mid 1930s, had nearly stopped altogether. 

Authors and historians have attributed this gradual, albeit steady, decline to various causes. Some assign the blame to the demise of the shirt collar fashion; others point to the retirement of George Lorimer, Leyendecker’s long-time editor at The Saturday Evening Post; and still others suspect the growing prominence of photography.

Nonetheless, they can all agree on the man’s unmistakable brilliance as an artist. 

From the 1890s to his death in 1951, Leyendecker had produced 322 covers for The Post, advertisements for a host of clothing manufacturers, and countless recruitment and war bond posters for the United States during the First and Second World Wars. 

Indeed, Leyendecker created a distinctive style imitated to this day in everything from fashion ads to shopping mall mannequins. More importantly, though, his work inspired generations of illustrators to come. 

One of them, Norman Rockwell, served as a pallbearer at his funeral.

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