Monday, June 15, 2009

The Man and the Myth

Most of what fills this blog are comments on book illustration. It is the form of illustration that I'm the closest to— both by virtue of the books that I compile, and the illustration I do myself. There are tons of great illustrators out there, that did very little (if anything) for the book market—for many reasons. Book work does not pay the best. In books, you have to produce a large body of work—it is a bigger commitment. Magazines are faster, usually pay a bit more, and it's normally 1-3 pieces. Advertising is king in regards to a paycheck. Do a job for a corporate client or ad agency, those jobs can really pay some bills.

One of the best known advertising illustrators of the early 20th century was J. C. Leyendecker (1874-1951). J. C., or Joe, was the older of two brothers—Frank was also a fairly successful illustrator. The brothers Leyendecker were born in Germany, raised and apprenticed in Chicago, studied in Paris, and became a huge stars in New York. (Again, that magic date...where was he in 1900? Moving from Chicago to NY, 26 years old, a year after painting his first Saturday Evening Post cover...)

J. C.'s major contributions—Preceding Norman Rockwell, he was the leading illustrator of the Saturday Evening Post (321 Covers!) and his ability to produce a smart, strong, male image led more than one clothier to his studio door. The product that his art would carry and sell for decades was the Arrow Shirt collar. (Top image, Arrow Collar ad, 1912) Advertising clients like Arrow made Leyendecker a wealthy man, and he went through money as fast as it came in.

Both brothers painted in a similar style, having some tell-tale features that separate a Leyendecker work from others. STRONG brush strokes. Lines often look chiseled; sculpted, almost. Beautiful directional qualities. Contour of the primary figure is the most important design element. Keeps the statement strong and simple, and that attention to profile makes the image communicate efficiently.

While doing research for a project, I came across a box of clipped illustrations, mostly from Century Magazine. In the bottom of this pile, I found three Leyendecker pages—far less commercial than what I had known him for. Two were from an article (Written by Teddy Roosevelt, no less) on the Ancient Irish Sagas (January, 1907 issue). The pieces depict Cuchulain in Battle, and Queen Meave, both leading figures in Celtic mythology. The Cuchulain piece has always captivated me- great details, while getting in real close, showing the chariot, with only a hint of the horse. The other image is Old Testament— also from Century, it is for a poem called The Death of Eve, by William Vaughn Moody. This depiction of Eve—and son Cain—is unlike any I have ever seen, with the low mist making the figures feel like giants. A big step from an Arrow shirt. I have to wonder if J. C. enjoyed such imaginative diversions from his bigger, commercial clientele. I certainly appreciate them.

Jim Vadeboncoeur's bio of JCL at Bud Plant
American Art's great Leyendecker page

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