The Nicholas and Lee Begovich Gallery at Cal State Fullerton recently partnered with MUZEO Museum and Cultural Center to organize the exhibition Figures, Poses and Glances: Coded Illustrations of J.C. Leyendecker, which had its closing reception on April 9th. The exhibit featured the works of one of the most prolific artists of the Golden Age of American Illustration, J.C. Leyendecker, who was known for creating the covers of the Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s Magazine, Fortune magazines, and countless advertisements for Arrow Collars and Kuppenhimer clothes. After talking with Begovich Gallery Director Jennifer Frias, I received a museum press release and reached out to Exhibition Curator Clark Silva, who offered me a tour of the gallery a few days before the show closed.
“This exhibit is looking at the secret kind of LGBTQ history to one of America’s forgotten but also reimagined illustrators,” said Silva, who is also an Exhibitions Specialist at MUZEO and an M.A. candidate in Art History at CSUF. “J.C. Leyendecker’s work sort of straddles the early 20th century (the end of World War I and 1918) to when he’s sort of phased out by the magazines and advertisements in the Thirties going into World War II. He is credited with creating a lot of the iconography in Americana and American holidays. He was a part of creating those images. He is also famous for essentially starting American advertising illustration, and this exhibition looks into a little bit of the secrets behind those images that he created.”
Silva first became interested in the works of Leyendecker when he was in a graphic design class at Cal State Fullerton. His class was talking about World War I propaganda posters, and he saw one with a depiction of Lady Liberty with a boy scout holding a sword. There was something about it that caught Silva’s attention, so he wanted to find out more about this artist. The artist was J.C. Leyendecker.
“As I started to look into his work, I realized that I kind of knew who he was,” said Silva. “He gets lumped in a lot with Norman Rockwell, who was Leyendecker’s protégé but completely eclipsed him in sort of the Forties and Fifties. The thing about the Lady Liberty Bonds poster was that it looked like Lady Liberty was a man in drag, and I was like, well, that’s a really interesting thing for the turn of the century to be producing. As I looked more into Leyendecker, I saw that there were images that suggested that there may be a kind of coding or something was happening with a lot of these paintings that he was doing that didn’t reveal themselves just surface level.”
Silva explained that Leyendecker was a gay illustrator at the turn of the century using gay imagery, gay coding, and gay culture to advertise and essentially create these ideas of what we equate with American pop culture.
“Leyendecker’s famous creation was the Arrow Collar Man, who was this debonair, suave, sophisticated guy created to sell Arrow Collars and Kuppenheimer clothing at the turn of the century,” explained Silva. “That figure is a model named Charles Beach, who was Leyendecker’s life partner. They met in 1902, and then they lived and worked together until they both passed away in the early Fifties. To me, that was shocking that so much of American pop culture is indebted to this gay man, but also sort of this gay love story. That is what this exhibition is really looking at.”
As curator of the exhibition, Silva’s research process started with a book by Judy Cutler titled J.C. Leyendecker, which cataloged many Leyendecker covers and illustrations. He explained that Cutler runs the National Museum of American Illustration in Rhode Island and owns a bunch of Leyendecker pieces. This led to Silva combing through the works of Leyendecker’s life, which coincided with “a rising tide of re-evaluating Leyendecker,” who had pretty much descended into obscurity in the Thirties.
“Rockwell takes over, and Leyendecker gets forgotten, part of that being because of the homophobia in the Forties and Fifties during the Depression and post-World War II,” said Silva. “From there, it was about looking into Leyendecker’s life, re-evaluating the very few historical records on him, and then looking through and finding different ads…In the early Fifties, Leyendecker wanted Charles Beach to destroy everything, so photos, journals, and diaries were destroyed. What we have left are these illustrations to kind of tell the story. It was researching images and establishing what the narrative was going to be, finding the images, reaching out to collectors, and building the narrative around those.”
Silva thinks that the Leyendecker look is still present in modern American society. “You can look at these Arrow Collar ads and these illustrations, and you can still see this look in GQ and the Academy Awards a few months ago, and how that Leyendecker look is still much of a part of American mainstream culture. And to trace that back to, essentially, a gay man and his life partner were really kind of an emotional journey for me.”
Having curated the show, Silva was able to see how people reacted to this story. He explained that a lot of people still don’t know who Leyendecker is, so they’re experiencing this artist for the first time. But for people who kind of know who Leyendecker is but don’t know this story, they’ve been really responsive to it.
Silva concluded our tour by saying, “I think for a lot of people, that underlying, queer-coded, and sort of queer love story that runs through Leyendecker’s work has been really meaningful for them.”
Figures, Poses, and Glances: Coded Illustrations of J.C. Leyendecker was on view at Muzeo in downtown Anaheim because Cal State Fullerton’s Begovich Gallery was and still is currently under construction as part of CSUF’s College of the Arts ongoing modernization project.