J.C. Leyendecker: The Greatest Gay Artist You Don’t Know

Written by | Art & Design, Lifestyle

Leyendecker painting

Leyendecker Originals courtesy National Museum of American Illustration

Bill Savoy spreads the gospel of J.C. Leyendecker, underappreciated genius and mentor to Norman Rockwell.

Until two years ago, Bill Savoy was content to work on Broadway, quietly painting backdrops for such musicals as Hamilton, Hello, Dolly! and The Lion King.

That’s when the producers of a 2013 heist movie starring John Travolta titled The Forger called. According to Savoy, “they wanted to know, ‘Could you paint a copy of Monet’s ‘Woman With A Parasol’ in various stages of completion?’” Savoy said he could, and went on to create close to two dozen paintings used to depict Travolta’s character scheming to pay a debt by stealing Monet’s original and replacing it.

The movie came and went, but the idea would not let Savoy go — especially when he realized he could forge nearly anything so long as he didn’t claim it was an original when he was finished.

Bill Savoy

Bill Savoy photo courtesy of Sandy Kaufman

Almost instinctively, Savoy turned to an illustrator who’s work has been obscured by the passage of time: J.C. Leyendecker. Roughly a century ago, Leyendecker was one of the most sought-after artists of his time, creating a variety of indelible images for popular magazines and products. And his work remains some of the most homoerotic ever to reach a mainstream American audience.

“They’re just incredibly sexy images,” Savoy says, gesturing at the wall of a bar in the West Village where his Leyendecker copies and a few original pieces share the space. “Imagine how Grey Gardens the atmosphere must have been at their home in upstate New York, with Frank and Joe painting, and their sister living with them; having a laugh at just how gay some of these paintings were.”

Using Charles Beach (long reputed to be Leyendecker’s lover) as his model, the artist crafted the first superstar of the advertising world in “the Arrow Collar Man,” a dashing, gorgeous figure sporting Arrow’s famously detachable collars. In addition, Leyendecker befriended a young devotee named Norman Rockwell.

Leyendecker

While the work of both Leyendecker brothers celebrated the male form, Joe was by far the more commercially successful — perhaps because his images depict men and women of refinement and privilege at the zenith of their wealth and beauty. Leyendecker’s men were sex objects without being blatantly sexual, and his women were as beautifully rendered as the men on their arms. He is also responsible for creating the image of Santa as a jolly fat man in a white fur-trimmed red suit and the cherbic New Year’s baby. He’s even credited with the idea of presenting flowers to mothers on Mother’s Day.

“His work has a very subtle wit about it,” says Savoy. “ You can examine these images and see that he’s having fun in so many ways; with our ideas of masculinity and femininity, with what looks elegant and what looks rugged.” But as photography took over more magazine landscape, Leyendecker’s style fell from fashion — not to be popularized again until Norman Rockwell hit his stride in the 1960s (with a style largely inspired by Leyendecker). Because Leyendecker’s originals were sold to keep the New Rochelle household running, no comprehensive collection of his work existed for decades. “Then about 10 years ago, a book came out [J.C. Leyendecker, Harry N. Abrams] … You see so much of what Rockwell got from him. So much style and grace. And of course every five pages, there’s some incredible hunk looking from the book back at you. It takes your breath away.”

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Last modified: September 12, 2017

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