Saturday, August 27, 2016

J.C. LYENDECKER Haggin Museum

Last weekend I had the good fortune to be a guest at the Stockton California convention, where I had a great time meeting folks, talking to old friends and other artists, doing sketches and selling some originals. It was a wonderfully artist friendly show and I enjoyed myself tremendously. However, the highlight of the trip was that the local Haggin Museum had a private tour of their gallery for all the con guests. Since they have the largest collection of J.C. Lyendecker paintings and drawings in existence, this was not to be missed. I spent most of my time in the basement, going through the flat files that people rarely see of sketches and preliminary drawings done by both Joseph Christian and his brother Frank. This was literally a once in a lifetime opportunity. It was hard to tear yourself away from these to notice the Maxfield Parrish lying against the wall, the Geromes hanging in storage, or the remarkable Boughereau on display in the main gallery. If this is within driving distance (or flying if you are truly a fan) this is a museum that you should put on your calendar.

(One of Frank Leyendecker's most famous illustrations. Reproduced cover below.)

(Maxfield Parrish painting.)

(William Bouguereau painting)

(Two Jean-Leon Gerome paintings)

Below is a short piece I wrote on Lyendecker a few years back for our CAPS  (Comic Art Professional Society.) 

In the early 70’s when I was just breaking in to the comics book industry I was introduced to JCL through the wonderful book by Michael Schau. The work had an immediate effect on me and I was soon incorporating elements of the style into my own drawings. This love affair didn’t last forever. Like Norman Rockwell, I soon dismissed Leyendecker, thinking his work filled with too much technique and his figures too much like well-painted manikins. So unless I was looking for specific costume or design reference the book gathered dust on my shelf. 

Hey! I was young and ignorant. I had underestimated Leyendecker because of I never got past  the stylized simplicity of his characters.Years later, working on another project I was forced to reexamine the work. More knowledgeable at my craft I could now appreciate all those things in this artist’s work I had glossed over: his incredible design sense; the impeccable draughtmanship; the thought, precision, and absolute mastery of form,lighting a color that was displayed along with the stylized technique.  Each time I start to look at his paintings now, there is still something new and exciting to be found in every wrinkle and every brushstroke. 

Joseph Christian Leyendecker was born in Germany in l874 but moved to Chicago with his family at the age of eight. He exhibited an interest in drawing and painting from an early age and at sixteen became an non-paid apprentice at J Manz & Co. Engraving House. Within six months he  impressed his employers that he began working for a salary as a full-fledged illustrator, his first assignment doing a series of sixty illustrations for the bible.

(Leyendecker did very detailed studies before beginning a finished painting as is evidenced by the number of unfinished illustrations seen here) 

While he was working, J.C. was also taking classes at the Chicago Art Institute, studying under the tutelage of the renowned anatomist John H. Vanderpoel. J.C.’s younger brother Frank also attended the school and showed great promise. By the time he was 22 the older Leyendecker had put aside enough money to allow both he and Frank to move to Paris to study at the academie.It was here that Leyendecker truly made the leap forward. He learned the draughtmanship and  techniques of the old masters. He also was introduced to the paintings and posters of Alphonse Mucha and Toulouse-Lautrec and many other great European artists of the time. For better or for worse Leyendecker took all these influences and brought them back with him to his commercial art. Like Cary Cooper who toured Europe and discovered the sleek look of Italian fashion and incorporated it into his on-screen cowboy costumes, Leyendecker took the old world influence and made it completely American.

The Leyendeckers returned to Chicago after two years and in 1897 opened their own studio. Success was immediate for both, but while Frank’s work was popular and accepted J.C. was soon a giant in the field of illustration. In 1900 they moved to NYC and opened a new studio. In 1905 Leyendecker accepted a commission to create the image of “The Arrow Collar Man” The commercial success brought him to new heights of popularity. It also brought to the forefront his model for the image, Charles Beach, who would be his assistant, friend, and business manager for fifty years. Because of the private nature of their existence, their relationship had been explored only through rumor and innuendo.

There is a film based on their controversial relationship called “The Servant” (1963), starring Dirk Bogarde, James Fox and Sarah Miles, directed by Joseph Losey and written by Harold Pinter. The movie loosely retold the story of Leyendecker and Beach.

J.C.’s creed has always been: “Buy more than you can afford and you’ll never stop working or fret so over a picture that it never gets done.” He lived that way. In 1914 he built a French chateau style mansion in New Rochelle and moved in with his brother Frank, his sister Augusta and Charles Beach. 

J.C. was able to meet the heavy expenses because of the immense popularity of his work and his prolific output. Frank was not so lucky and began to fall behind in his payments. Beach, who received a percentage for each of J.C.’s pictures, covered the younger brother’s debts. Whether this  was cruelty or kindness is a matter of speculation. Whatever the circumstance, in 1923 there was a major family squabble and Frank and Augusta moved out and Beach stayed.

Leyendecker was Norman Rockwell’s idol and neighbor and Rockwell tells his version of the breakup in his book “My Life as an Illustrator,” but how much is true is open to speculation. It’s evident that Rockwell despised Beach and blamed him for driving Frank out of the house and to drug addiction. Rockwell found Frank a garage studio next to his house; within a year the younger Leyendecker was dead.

Through the depression styles began to change toward a more realistic look and J.C.’s position as the top illustrator in America started to slip. While he continued to work up until his death in from a heart attack the assignments were never of the caliber  of his earlier career nor was the work he produced. His funeral had less than a dozen attendees. After his death Charles Beach held a “garage sale” and  sold a vast quantity of the paintings for as little as $75 each, the fragments of his studies going for as little as $2-$5. (Sigh! If only we had a time machine.)

J.C. Leyendecker was trained in the classical style and never accepted the use of the camera for working on a painting. Everything was done from life. He would begin an illustration by making several thumbnail drawings to work out the design and compositional problems. He would then pick which thumbnail he thought best work with design and storytelling and then do several color roughs. The next stage was to hire models and props and do detailed studies of different elements of the picture. He might fill up two or three canvasses working alla prima (all in one sitting) as he tried different poses and lighting until he had solved any problems. The last stage was collecting and putting all of these together on the canvas. Because he had worked through every detail of the painting, the finished piece always maintained a wonderful spontaneity that belied the effort that went into it.

Don't forget to check out our original comic book stories every week on our sister site, Vozcomix

Thursday, August 18, 2016

GIL KANE- Man of Action

(The article below was written as a eulogy for my good friend Gil Kane when he died in 2000.
He always accepted me as a contemporary and was a very likable and extremely entertaining
conversationalist. As an artist, his strength was his storytelling and dynamism. His figures 
literally leapt off the pages. He was also typed as pencilled and rarely inked his own work 
except for his creator owned projects. Had he done more of his own finishes, he certainly
would be ranked as one of the all time greats. For me, he always will be.  -Mike Vosburg)

Gil Kane was arguably one of the greatest comicbook artists. But his stature as an artist  pales in comparison to his stature as a man. It’s not always a pleasant experience to meet your heroes; too often they turn out to have feet of clay. Gil surely had those, but the rest of him was so full of love and wonder and brash opinions on just about anything and everything, that time spent with him was always a joy.

Before I really talked to Gil, I had always found him physically very intimidating. One look at the guy and you were sure he had served in the Virginia legislature and was from tobacco money dating back to the American Revolution (maybe George Washington DID sire children.) Nothing could be further from the truth.

He was Eli Katz, brought to America from Latvia by his immigrant parents, raised in a coldwater tenement in Brooklyn and he never forgot his beginnings. 

The first time my wife Annie and I went out to dinner with Gil and his wife Elaine, I assumed we’d spend a lot of time talking shop, and we did. But then the conversation turned to more interesting topics, and I discovered that Gil was a liberal democrat, thought Roosevelt the most important man of the century, and was very much a humanist. And he was very opinionated. Consequently, our friendship grew.

I’m not going to talk much about Gil’s art because everybody else has. He was a master, and  a big influence on me. When I was stuck on an action pose, I usually tended to go to Frazetta or Gil,whose artistic verisimilitude (he loved that phrase) appealed to me more than the cartoon style exaggerations.  

There were a lot of people that Gil did not think the world of...but it never colored his opinion of their work. And there were a lot of people he loved, but it never colored his opinion of their work.But I’m not sure Gil ever really appreciated just how good his own art and storytelling were. His attitude was to impress people, go to your strengths; if you want to improve, work on your weaknesses.

And did I mention he was opinionated. Politics,music, art, movies,etc. As he began to achieve success as an artist, he realized that we wasn’t well-read, and he worried about sounding less than astute in conversation. Consequently, he read like a demon for the rest of his life: fiction and non-fiction, comics, pulps, literature,biographies...whatever would add to his knowledge. And he had an opinion about it.

I never really knew Gil until he had already had his first battle with cancer. He told me once with a mystified look that he had always looked the same from the time he was in his early thirties until just a year or two previously. Suddenly, there was an old man looking back at him in the mirror. “i don’t understand it,” he said,”because the person inside me looking out at that old man is still this ten year old kid!”

Gil told me a great story about taking in his portfolio to a company in Florida to talk to them about work. The woman took one look at this “ancient” man and immediately dismissed him and returned
to her office. A couple months later this same “creative” director came across some of Gil’s work and is screaming to her minions:”Why can’t we get art that looks like this! I want THIS guy.” Of course when they contacted Gil he was quick to agree to the work.He only wanted two stipulations in his contract: 1) lots of cash; 2) when I walk into your office Ms. Creative Director has to walk over and kiss my ass. Gil never mentioned if he took the job or not.

But it was that link to the ten year old that made Gil so delightful. The stories he told me could fill a book and were always a hoot. My all time favorite was about his days at the old NY School of Art and Design, back in the early thirties. 

Gil had manufactured a costume with a black cape and hood and gloves and jacket and started the rumor of the “Phantom” who haunted the attic regions of the school building. An accomplice would lure unsuspecting victims up to the attic where the costumed Phantom (young Eli)  would suddenly leap out sending his poor classmates running and shrieking...

...Until a couple of braver souls decided to chase and unmask the mystery man. Leaping across the rafter and plaster flooring things suddenly reached a climax when the Phantom missed a rafter and came crashing through the ceiling plaster to land amid a stunned art class in full costume.

Before their dropped jaws snapped shut, the Phantom was up and out the classroom door, rushing pall mall down the stairs, and tossing hood, cape, gloves and jacket out the open window of each landing until it was just a gasping Eli Katz who quickly exited the front of the school.

I heard that story at least three times and each time it was with the same giggle and relish of a little boy. Gil would often lament that he wanted to do more adaptions of his own writing, but wasn’t sure of what subject to do. I always urged him to go the Phantom and his own life story.

But now the Phantom is dead. Long live the Phantom!!!