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.

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