J.C. Leyendecker’s artistic practice was commercial from its very beginning. Before studying at the Art Institute of Chicago, he produced 60 commissioned bible illustrations for a printing company. After graduating, he spent a year at a Parisian art school with his brother (where he studied Jules Chéret, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Alphonse Mucha), and then moved to Chicago. In 1899 he received his first commission from the Saturday Evening Post. Leyendecker would go on to produce 322 covers for the country’s most popular magazine in the first half of the 20th century, influencing both the image of American in the popular imagination, and the stylistic sensibilities of his Post colleague, Norman Rockwell. His Post covers solidified a number of American traditions, including flowers on Mother’s Day and firecrackers on the 4th of July; similarly, his illustrations for Cluett Peabody & Company’s Arrow Shirts helped establish men’s fashion in the early 20th century.
Leyendecker and his life partner, Charles Beach, lived a lavish lifestyle that reflected the decadence of the “roaring 20s,” and suffered from the financial troubles of the Great Depression. While Leyendecker did not (unlike Rockwell) explicitly promote any social or political ideals in his work, scholars retrospectively examine his advertisements, World War I recruitment posters, and Post covers as the building blocks of idealized masculinity in America. Some critics have pointed out an inherent contradiction: many were charged with a homoerotism that wouldn’t be culturally acceptable for decades.
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