Darlings . . . Joseph Christian Leyendecker was a 20th-century queer illustrator who was famous for creating 322 beautiful Saturday Evening Post
covers from 1900 to 1945. He also practically invented branding in advertising and modern magazine design. The “New Year’s baby”? That was his creepy invention! How about male objectification in advertising? Fuck, yeah — Leyendecker!
Leyendecker frequently painted beautiful strong males in a loose yet controlled style. The masculine subjects were usually placed in locker rooms, clubhouses, dorms, tailor shops and fancy parties. His dandyish subjects glance seductively — confidently posed, ready to break your heart. His paintings have a similar homoerotic quality to Bruce Weber’s photographs from the 1980s or Tony Duran’s recent male model and celebrity portraits. Ralph Lauren’s ad campaigns have been dripping in Leyendecker-inspired goodness for decades.
His creations came before print photography was all the rage, and his early work pre-dated matinee-idol worship. This guy was giving the average straight male something to aspire to while giving homosexual men images to drool over, to dream about, to get off on.
Sure, he could paint women stunningly, full of character and prettiness. His drawings of children? They freak me out a tad. But really, Leyendecker’s menswear illustrations are his strongest and most exciting work. When designing for the Arrow Shirt Company, he was encouraged to insert homoerotic imagery. His illustrated images (for Arrow) personified “an ideal American man.” The subjects were always very athletic, strong featured, well dressed, stylish and very, very sexy. All his subjects remind me of Brideshead
’s Sebastian Flyte and Charles Ryder . . . but with the bodies of Thor and Captain America.
His 1915 illustration “Man in Long Underwear” was done for Cooper Underwear Company, the precursor to Jockey International. A handsome young man stands alone taking off his golden robe to reveal a clean, white, clinging undergarment. Every muscle of his body can be seen through the thin fabric (sadly, his man bits weren’t painted in).
The male model used in that ad, and in most of his divine Arrow Shirt illustrations, was Leyendecker’s life partner, Charles Beach.
They met when Beach came to Leyendecker’s studio to model in 1903. Leyendecker was 29, Beach was 17. Fellow illustrator and friend Norman Rockwell described Beach as “tall, powerfully built and extraordinarily handsome — looked like an athlete from the Ivy League colleges. He spoke with a clipped British accent and was always beautifully dressed. His manners were polished and impeccable.”
Beach and Leyendecker were together for almost 50 years. Beach was Leyendecker’s lover, model, housekeeper and business manager. He rented the costumes (for the models he also hired), bought the art supplies, prepared canvas stretchers and paid the gardeners and servants. Over time it amused Leyendecker to encourage Beach to feel an equal partner in the creativity as well. To keep his hard-working love amused, Beach arranged and hosted large, glamorous parties for the reclusive Leyendecker at their New Rochelle home/studio. They were important social events with a mix of celebrities, artists and high-powered movers and shakers.
The 1920s were the most successful years of Leyendecker’s career; the 1930s, not so much. During the Great Depression, Leyendecker became more of a recluse as commissions became few and far between. Beach kept outside contact at bay, and they curtailed their spending habits and eventually let go of all their household staff. They lived a quiet life together until July 25, 1951, when Leyendecker died at the age of 75 in Beach’s arms.
Leyendecker divided the estate equally between his beloved sister Mary and Beach. Before his death, Leyendecker instructed Beach to destroy all his paintings, sketches, letters, diaries, correspondence and records. Beach did most of what he was asked, but he kept most of the original paintings and sketches, which he eventually sold at a yard sale. Unbelievably, the studies sold for 50 cents each, and the most expensive painting sold for $75.
Beach died six months after Leyendecker, in 1952, but they will live on in the stunning paintings of a man by the man who loved him. I know, right? Weepy sad tears.
Check out the wonderful Abrams coffee table book
JC Leyendecker, by Laurence S Cutler & Judy Goffman Cutler.
Sissydude drools over, dreams about and gets off on men in their skivvies. Follow him @iamsissydude.