J.C. Leyendecker: The ‘Arrow Collar Man’ Who Hid a Radical Idea

As the 20th century began in earnest, who was more radical, Pablo Picasso in Paris or Joseph Christian Leyendecker in New York?

I asked myself that during the tour “Undercover: JC Leyendecker and American Masculinity” A fascinating show at the New York Historical Society. Dozens of paintings and countless magazine pages provide a compact overview of Leyendecker’s work over the first three decades of the last century as one of the country’s leading illustrators.

His calling card was male beauty. Advertisements for his shirts and glued-on collars feature young people of the Jazz Age dressed in their finest clothes. Academics in the sports world decorate the covers of weekly magazines.

Picasso did a marvelous thing on the surface of the painting that could not match Leyendecker’s vivid realism. But it was easy to take steps to get around it, simply because Picasso’s radicalism was so evident on its surface.

Leyendecker’s wildly successful illustrations, on the other hand, were simply inevitable. In 1908, a popular magazine felt it worth reporting that 34-year-old Leyendecker had been booked 12 months in advance and charged a whopping $350 for a single commercial illustration. This is the amount an average worker can earn in a year.

That meant that most of the public had no choice but to encounter radical ideas that were hidden beneath the conventional surface of his image. It was that two elite men could fall in love, lust, and even be the happiest in the long run. couple.

Those with a keen eye should not miss the possibility that a romance may be budding or already blossoming between the two square-jawed giants in Leyendecker’s 1920s Kuppenheimer menswear advertisement. I should have. One man is perfectly dressed in a gray suit and boater hat, while the other is lounging beside him in a one-piece bathing suit.

Relaxing in the morning at an Ivy League club and thinking about the two guys in the Arrow Collar ad, it’s the reason why Leyendecker introduces them to us as mere good friends. It only takes a little imagination to think that it is impolite to say so. A more blatantly erotic story.

Even in the jazz era, when homophobia was not as offensive as it was then, offering such a scenario to the mainstream would be more outrageous, quieter, covertly outrageous than anything a Cubist show could suggest. there were. I see Leyendecker’s art, in preparation for the uprising outside his Stonewall Inn in 1969, releasing a homosexual fifth column into American culture and the eroticism of the majority of heterosexuals. I think it’s a weakened Trojan horse.

Dan Guadagnolo, one of several scholars studying Leyendecker’s queer culture, describes how the illustrator “created a commercial appeal among normative men and at the same time was homosexual.” provided a fresh vision of middle-class white queer masculinity to those who might experience the desire for In Leyendecker’s time, queer identity was still in its infancy. His image helped us imagine nascent gay culture embedded in America’s power structure, no matter how distant the reality was. After Leyendecker married his life partner, Charles Beach — Having modeled in that swimsuit and in many other advertisements, he withdrew from public life and took up the private space of the mansion his work purchased. I felt the need.

Norman Rockwell, who was 20 years younger than Leyendecker and who eventually became Leyendecker’s next-door neighbor, discussed how Beach “hinted” into Leyendecker’s life, especially when Leyendecker was once a recluse. He writes in his memoirs very cruelly about the social withdrawal of two people who had become. Leyendecker told Beach in his 1951 to burn his papers and art after his death, but fortunately some of the photographs were spared.

Leyendecker painted them with the audacity of great socialite portraitists like Gilbert Stuart and John Singer Sargent, but it still conveys that when reproduced on the printed page. As in, it was magnified and exaggerated with each gorgeous lick of paint. I think that flashy approach was conservative camouflage for the rebellious message hidden underneath.

Most members of the American mainstream may not have been aware of its defiance. But I can’t shake the mental image of artists and beaches lounging in mansions and enjoying the covert subversion of advertising. As a gay couple, how could you fail to recognize it in a male duo portrayed so affectionately? According to the mural in the exhibition, in an advertisement for ivory soap, the shadow Leyendecker placed on a model’s crotch clearly implies an erection. Once pointed out, it cannot be erased.

Mr. Leyendecker’s strange audacity may have contributed to his market success. The gorgeous young Ivy Leaguers in his ads seem like the epitome of privilege—certainly more privilege than the hard working stalwarts who were actually going to buy the clothes they were pitching. And was there a greater sign of privilege than the freedom to love whoever you imagined, regardless of gender? you can get the right

It doesn’t matter what you choose. Many American men may have been horrified by the idea of ​​sleeping with another man. But Leyendecker’s image captures the very concept of free choice. You might say that images subconsciously represent the endless choices that American capitalism has begun to offer consumers.

Compared to the freedom presented by Leyendecker, Picasso’s taste for facets and angles is less constrained.

Undercover: JC Leyendecker and American Masculinity

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

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