Not surprisingly for a person that contributes to this blog, I am a huge fan of the “Golden Age of Illustration” and especially J. C. Leyendecker. For someone that has made her career in commercial art, I have a deep respect for the illustrators of the past who have literally shaped culture so much that their work has embodied entire eras of our society. Mucha and his art nouveau posters. Gibson and his Gibson Girls. Leyendecker and the Arrow Collar man and the creation of the prototype (for better or worse) of American masculinity in the era between World War I and World War II.
It wasn’t until relatively recently that I learned that this work — literally used as a prototype to inspire American men to “be more manly”, especially as we neared the Second World War — was gay, and his most famous model was his long term romantic partner. The paradox there absolutely floored me. And this isn’t a rare phenomenon — American culture often takes things from groups marginalized by their race or sexual orientation or gender identity and washes it of those associations as it absorbs it into the mainstream. I grew up in the 80s & 90s so Madonna’s Vogue era was huge for me, and it wasn’t until much later I learned of the connection to the NYC drag balls and queer culture. As this is an art blog, I’m going to keep focused on the art, but it has always been fascinating to me how the performance of mainstream masculine and feminine fashion and gender roles is so often and so heavily influenced by gay, lesbian, and queer artists—while the much more conservative mainstream majority following these trends remains completely oblivious to their origins.
One of our very own Muddy Colors contributors, Marcos Chin, was on a panel during the exhibition about these themes.
So I would have gone to see any exhibition nearby of Leyendecker’s work, but the New York Historical Society did one better and gave us Under Cover: J. C. Leyendecker and American Masculinity, a great exhibit of works from Leyendecker, but put in context of the times in regards to the history of gay and queer culture in NYC in the 30s and 40s, alongside the mainstream context of the World Wars and America coming to become a leading industrial and commercial world power.
What struck me immediately was the range of finishes from piece to piece, and how you can so clearly see the difference in skills and final pieces between what was done as commercial “illustration” work and what was polished to a “fine art” finish. It was fascinating to see the originals next to examples of the printed finals. Leyendecker was an absolute expert at knowing how his work would be reproduced by the printing technology of his time, and his originals absolutely show that. The pieces he knew were for black and white printing have a markedly difference brush stroke quality than the pieces he knew were going to be printed in color. And you can see him giving various levels of polish for cover work for something that would have high quality printing like the Saturday Evening Post, as compared to ads that would be in color inside other, cheaper magazines. This man did not waste a single brush stroke that wasn’t needed.
I was struck by how effective his really loose brushstrokes for fills and fabrics mixed with his really sharp rendered edges. In Muddy Colors terms, I feel like it’s like mashing Greg Manchess and Dan Dos Santos together in the same illustration. Clearly he was looking at artists like Sargent, but controlling the eye through his sharp edges and high contrast. The effect in person is really staggering.
And holy crap could he paint dramatic lighting:
Also, be thankful, modern illustrators, that you’re no longer responsible for painting on the typography by hand:
The other thing that struck me, after drooling sufficiently over his textures and lighting, was the disbelief that anyone looking at these images didn’t get the homoerotic undertones to so many of them. And look, I know it was different times then, but still. The looks between the men in his compositions are so charged…while I was hard pressed to find a single example of a man looking at a woman with anything warmer than cool disdain.
Overall it was delightful to get to see so many Leyendecker originals in person, and fascinating to see them paired up with the commercial reproductions. If you want to read more about the exhibit you can check out the exhibit page and the New York Times review.
And here’s a bit of a photo dump of everything else that caught my eye: