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J.C. Leyendecker: The ‘Arrow Collar Man’ Who Concealed a Radical Concept – TheFantasyTimes

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By Jitin Gambhir

J.C. Leyendecker: The ‘Arrow Collar Man’ Who Concealed a Radical Concept


As the 20th century advanced, I pondered which artist was more groundbreaking: Pablo Picasso in Paris or Joseph Christian Leyendecker in New York.

This question came to mind as I visited the captivating exhibition, “Under Cover: J.C. Leyendecker and American Masculinity,” at the New-York Historical Society. The exhibition showcased Leyendecker’s extensive body of work from the first three decades of the 1900s, establishing him as one of America’s esteemed illustrators.

Leyendecker became renowned for his portrayals of male beauty, featuring Jazz Age youths dressed impeccably for his shirt and collar advertisements, as well as athletic college men on magazine covers.

While Picasso achieved remarkable artistic transformations that Leyendecker’s precise realism couldn’t match, Picasso’s radicalism was evident on the surface. It was easy to avoid his influence by simply looking away.

However, Leyendecker’s immensely successful illustrations were inescapable. In 1908, a popular magazine reported that Leyendecker, then 34 years old, was fully booked for 12 months ahead and charged an exorbitant $350 for a single commercial illustration. This amount equaled a year’s salary for an average worker.

Consequently, a significant portion of the public had no choice but to be exposed to the radical idea hidden beneath the surface of Leyendecker’s traditional imagery – the idea that two privileged men could fall in love, experience desire, and even have a committed relationship.

For those willing to see, it was evident that romance was blossoming, or perhaps already flourishing, between the two handsome men showcased in Leyendecker’s 1920s advertisement for Kuppenheimer menswear. One man was impeccably dressed in a gray suit and boater hat, while the other appeared relaxed next to him in a one-piece swimming costume.

When contemplating the two men in an advertisement for Arrow collars, leisurely lounging in an Ivy League club, it only takes a small leap of the imagination to consider that Leyendecker might have presented them as close friends to avoid explicitly telling a more amorous story.

Even during the Jazz Age, when homophobia was less aggressive than it would later become, presenting such scenarios to the mainstream was more outrageously – albeit secretly – provocative than anything the show-offs of Cubism could propose. I perceive Leyendecker’s art as a Trojan horse that unleashed a queer presence into American culture, challenging the heterosexual norms of the majority in preparation for the uprising that occurred in 1969 outside the Stonewall Inn.

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One of the scholars studying Leyendecker’s queer subculture, Dan Guadagnolo, explains how the illustrator “captivated conventional men while simultaneously offering a novel vision of middle-class white queer masculinity to those who may have experienced same-sex desire.” Leyendecker’s era marked the early stages of the formation of queer identities, and his images contributed to envisioning a gay culture that could integrate into the American power structure, regardless of how distant that reality may have seemed. After Leyendecker entered into a relationship with his life-partner, Charles Beach – who modeled in the swimsuit and countless other advertisements – he decided to withdraw from public life and enjoy the privacy of the mansion their works had afforded them.

Norman Rockwell, who was 20 years younger than Leyendecker and eventually became his neighbor, was quite critical in his memoir about how Beach had “inserted” himself into Leyendecker’s life and the subsequent social seclusion the couple chose. Leyendecker instructed Beach to destroy his papers and artwork upon his death in 1951, but fortunately, a few of the pieces were preserved.

Leyendecker painted these portraits with the same grandeur as society’s prominent portraitists – a style reminiscent of artists like Gilbert Stuart or John Singer Sargent – but with each intricate brushstroke magnified and exaggerated to ensure its visibility in printed reproductions. This extravagant technique served as a deceptive conservative facade, concealing the defiant message beneath.

The majority of Americans may have been too narrow-minded to recognize this defiance. However, I can’t help but imagine the artist and Beach in their mansion, reveling in the hidden subversion of their advertisements. As a gay couple, how could they not have recognized the same subversion in the tenderly depicted male duos? There is one notable case where the subversion was not concealed at all – in an ad for Ivory Soap, Leyendecker cleverly cast a shadow on his model’s crotch that seemingly suggests an erection, as noted in an exhibition wall text. Once noticed, it is impossible to unsee.

Leyendecker’s daring queer representations may have contributed to his market success. The attractive young Ivy Leaguers portrayed in his ads epitomized privilege – more privileged, certainly, than the working-class individuals who were the intended consumers of the promoted clothing. And what could be a greater symbol of privilege than the freedom to love whomever one desired, regardless of gender? These ads subtly implied that by choosing an Arrow collar, the consumers would gain the power to make decisions just like the elites.

The actual choice being made was irrelevant. Many American men may have been horrified at the thought of sleeping with another man. However, Leyendecker’s imagery tapped into the idea of unrestricted choice. One could argue that this imagery subliminally represented the endless possibilities that American capitalism began to offer consumers.

Compared to the freedom portrayed by Leyendecker, Picasso’s preference for facets and angles hardly seems liberating at all.


Under Cover: J.C. Leyendecker and American Masculinity

Through Aug. 13 at the New-York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West, Manhattan; (212) 873-3400; nyhistory.org.

As the 20th century progressed, I pondered whether Pablo Picasso in Paris or Joseph Christian Leyendecker in New York was more radical.

This question came to mind as I visited the fascinating exhibition, “Under Cover: J.C. Leyendecker and American Masculinity,” at the New-York Historical Society. The exhibition offered a comprehensive array of Leyendecker’s work from the first three decades of the 1900s, showcasing him as one of America’s renowned illustrators.

Leyendecker became known for his depictions of male beauty, featuring Jazz Age youths dressed in exquisite attire for his shirt and collar ads, as well as athletic college men on the covers of magazines.

While Picasso achieved remarkable transformations in his artwork that Leyendecker’s precise realism couldn’t match, Picasso’s radicalism was obvious on the surface. It was easy to avoid his influence by simply looking away.

However, Leyendecker’s immensely successful illustrations were unavoidable. In 1908, a popular magazine reported that Leyendecker, then 34 years old, was booked for 12 months in advance and charged an exorbitant $350 for one commercial illustration. This was equivalent to a year’s salary for an ordinary worker.

Consequently, a large portion of the public had no choice but to be exposed to the radical idea hiding beneath the surface of Leyendecker’s traditional imagery – the notion that two elite men could fall in love, experience desire, and even form a happily committed relationship.

For those willing to see, it was evident that romance was blossoming, or perhaps already flourishing, between the two handsome men featured in Leyendecker’s 1920s advertisement for Kuppenheimer menswear. One man was impeccably dressed in a gray suit and boater hat, while the other appeared relaxed next to him in a one-piece swimming costume.

When contemplating the two men in an advertisement for Arrow collars, leisurely lounging in an Ivy League club, it only takes a small leap of the imagination to consider that Leyendecker might have presented them as close friends to avoid explicitly telling a more amorous story.

Even during the Jazz Age, when homophobia was less aggressive than it would later become, presenting such scenarios to the mainstream was more outrageously – albeit secretly – provocative than anything the show-offs of Cubism could propose. I see Leyendecker’s art as a Trojan horse that unleashed a queer presence into American culture, challenging the majority’s heterosexual norms in preparation for the uprising that occurred in 1969 outside the Stonewall Inn.

One of the scholars studying Leyendecker’s queer subculture, Dan Guadagnolo, explains how the illustrator “captivated conventional men while simultaneously offering a novel vision of middle-class white queer masculinity to those who may have experienced same-sex desire.” Leyendecker’s era marked the early stages of the formation of queer identities, and his images helped in envisioning a gay culture that could integrate into the American power structure, regardless of how remote that reality may have seemed. After Leyendecker entered into a relationship with his life-partner, Charles Beach – who modeled in the swimsuit and countless other advertisements – he decided to retreat from public life and enjoy the privacy of the mansion their works had afforded them.

Norman Rockwell, who was 20 years younger than Leyendecker and eventually became his neighbor, was quite harsh in his memoir about how Beach had “inserted” himself into Leyendecker’s life and the subsequent social seclusion the couple chose. Leyendecker instructed Beach to destroy his papers and artwork upon his death in 1951, but fortunately, a few of the pieces were saved.

Leyendecker painted these portraits with the same grandeur as society’s prominent portraitists – a style reminiscent of artists like Gilbert Stuart or John Singer Sargent – but with each intricate brushstroke magnified and exaggerated to ensure its visibility in printed reproductions. This extravagant technique served as a deceptive conservative façade, concealing the defiant message beneath.

The majority of Americans may have been too narrow-minded to recognize this defiance. However, I can’t help but envision the artist and Beach in their mansion, reveling in the hidden subversion of their advertisements. As a gay couple, how could they not have recognized the same subversion in the tenderly depicted male duos? There is one notable case where the subversion was not concealed at all – in an ad for Ivory Soap, Leyendecker cleverly cast a shadow on his model’s crotch that seemingly suggests an erection, as noted in an exhibition wall text. Once pointed out, it is impossible to unsee.

Leyendecker’s daring queer representations may have contributed to his market success. The attractive young Ivy Leaguers portrayed in his ads epitomized privilege – more privileged, certainly, than the working-class individuals who were the intended consumers of the promoted clothing. And what could be a greater symbol of privilege than the freedom to love whomever one desired, regardless of gender? These ads subtly implied that by choosing an Arrow collar, the consumers would gain the power to make decisions just like the elites.

The actual choice being made was irrelevant. Many American men may have been horrified at the thought of sleeping with another man. However, Leyendecker’s imagery tapped into the idea of unrestricted choice. One could argue that this imagery subliminally represented the endless possibilities that American capitalism began to offer consumers.

Compared to the freedom portrayed by Leyendecker, Picasso’s preference for facets and angles hardly seems liberating at all.


Under Cover: J.C. Leyendecker and American Masculinity

Through Aug. 13 at the New-York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West, Manhattan; (212) 873-3400; nyhistory.org.

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