Joseph Christian Leyendecker: The Gay Artist that Defined the Perfect American Male

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Born in 1874, Joseph Christian Leyendecker emigrated with his family from Germany to Chicago in 1882 and soon began apprenticing with illustrators. After a brief stint studying art in Paris, Leyendecker returned to Chicago, where he established relationships with renowned magazines like “Collier’s” and “The Saturday Evening Post,” for whom he would ultimately design 322 covers.
Nobody had to tell J.C. Leyendecker that sex sells. Before the conservative backlash of the mid-20th century, the American public celebrated his images of sleek muscle-men, whose glistening homo-eroticism adorned endless magazine covers. Yet Leyendecker’s name is almost forgotten, whitewashed over by Norman Rockwell’s legacy of tame, small-town Americana.
Rockwell was just an 11-year old kid when Leyendecker created the legendary “Arrow Collar Man” in 1905, used to advertise the clothing company’s miraculous detachable collars. One of America’s first recognizable sex symbols, this icon of masculinity was defined by his poise and perfection, whether on the sports field or at the dinner table. Like the Gibson Girl, the “Arrow Collar Man” developed a singular identity, equal parts jock and dandy, who supposedly received more fan letters than silent film heartthrob Rudolph Valentino. His work helped define the visual look of America as much as the cinema up until World War II. To top things off, Leyendecker’s men were often modeled after his lover and lifetime companion, Charles Beach, making their secret romance a front-page feature across the U.S..
His stern, brooding men created the greatest impact. With their strong jaws and perfectly tailored clothes, Leyendecker’s men were featured in the pages of newspapers and magazines across the globe, selling everything from luxury automobiles to socks. Leyendecker’s fictional world of affluence and beauty influenced other pop-culture touchstones, like the fantastic setting of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.”
After his death of a heart attack in 1951, Leyendecker left few assets for his lifetime partner (their relationship lasted 50 years!), Charles Beach.
Villanueva-Collado (former literature professor at the City University of New York) said:
A lot of gay artists had to use the “palimpsest technique.” Palimpsest refers to the fact that parchment used to be so expensive they would have to paint it over to write something new, and that is the essence of semiotics, the text that is hidden beneath the visible text. Especially in literature, in anything having to do with gays, it’s been done to perfection. You have to hide it, not expose it like you can today.
Leyendecker had a fascination with asses, with muscles, and it was so evident. I kept wondering, how come nobody else says this? It’s right in your face, for heaven’s sake. I found it extremely interesting that there were three brothers–of which both Frank and J.C. turned out gay–and a sister, Augusta, who never married.
Both of the Leyendecker brothers were in Paris at a very crucial moment in 1884. They absorbed the academic French way of drawing, but it was also the time when Baron Von Gloeden’s photographs were all over the place. Von Gloeden was gay and also idolized the masculine body. This went contrary to the contemporary worshipping of the female body as a siren or as a vampire, and foretold–I hate to say–the Nazi aesthetic, the worship of the male body. But they didn’t know that, and that was not their intention.
“This man had the gall to make his lover Charles Beach the icon of American masculinity.”
Always declining fine art commissions, Leyendecker preferred to work as an illustrator and commercial artist. He was incredibly successful and well-known. His influence on Norman Rockwell can be clearly seen too. So financially successful was he that in 1914 he was able to commision a mansion in New Rochelle, where he lived until his death in 1952.
And Charles Beach? He and Leyendecker were together for over 50 years, his role encompassing model, husband, cook & business manager. Despite Leyendecker’s fame, his life is not so well-known now because he lived discreetly; it would also appear that on his death Beach destroyed most of Leyendecker’s remaining work, diaries and documents. Leyendecker shunned photography as an art form and few photos exist or have survived of them. Charles Beach died shortly after Leyendecker also in 1952.

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