Thursday, June 04, 2009


Boy, this recent Leyendecker book is a doosey! I can't believe how good this guy was! I didn't get the book when it came out last year because I thought the pictures overlapped with an earlier book that I had, but I was mistaken. There's some duplication, sure, but an awful lot of what's here is new to me.

Leyendecker has to be one of the manliest illustrators ever. I wish he was alive and working today. The world desperately needs to hear what he had to say. 

The text is fascinating. I heard that Leyendecker was gay, but I didn't know the details. That's his live-in lover, Charles A. Beach, above. Maybe that's also Beach on the book cover pictured at the top. 

Leyendecker met Beach when he was 17 and Beach was 29. Leyendecker was already fully professional and took on beach as a model. Little by little Beach insinuated himself into the artist's life. According to Norman Rockwell, Beach gradually ran the household. He lined up the models, bought the art supplies, paid the 1923 he'd nudged Leyendecker's sister aside and completely took over the artist's business affairs.

Beach sounds like the classic guest who wouldn't leave. Beach was a big guy and used to intimidate Leyendecker's family and friends, even his clients. He especially intimidated Leyendecker's brother, also an accomplished painter and collaborator, and even began taking credit for Leyendecker's paintings.  This is amazing since he didn't paint but simply helped to stretch the canvases, and other small tasks. Leyendecker didn't seem to mind. He thought Beach was funny.

Rockwell was a long-time friend of Leyendecker, but he detested Beach who he described as "a real parasite, like some huge, white, cold insect clinging to Joe's back. And stupid. I don't think I ever heard him say anything vaguely intelligent."

The book portrays Norman Rockwell as a weasel who pumped Leyendecker for information  on contacts and clients, then stole jobs from him. Rockwell was the intensely competitive younger artist who followed his idol around, imitated his swagger, and even moved to the same town to be near him.

The book alleges that Rockwell stole his approach to cover art from Leyendecker. Rockwell's use of white backgrounds with figures that overlap the text and borders was actually copied from Leyendecker's. Ditto Rockwell's holiday themes and Americana. Rockwell's style was so similar to his mentor's that some readers of The Post couldn't tell them apart.  You wouldn't get that from the ultra-manly pictures I put up here, but the book is full of the cheerful, reverential, exquisitely crafted covers of the type we normally associate with Rockwell...only Leyendecker did it first.

The book further alleges that Leyendecker was defenseless against Rockwell because he was temperamentally quiet and reclusive, whereas Rockwell was a tireless self-promoter. Rockwell even put himself in his paintings. 

I grew up loving Rockwell as so many people did, and I admit that it's hard for me to change my opinion about him on the basis of only one book.  Even so, something about the allegations seems to ring true, if only in part.


Anonymous said...

Similar, but not the same. There's a different feeling between the art of Leyendecker and Rockwell that's difficult to articulate.

Btw, did you know that Rockwell was a huge influence on MAD artist Jack Davis?

Sean Wiig said...

Wow, I like these paintings! I've never heard about any of these guys before, but that's just the generation I'm in. These paintings are very cool. I like the baby at the end. I'm so shallow, I have nothing to say but that.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Anon: No, I didn't know that, but now that you mention it, I can see it. Rockwell's work invites parody and artists can appreciate the amount of work that went into it.

Sean: Glad you liked it!

Kali Fontecchio said...

These are great! THanks Eddie!

Jenny Lerew said...

Good on you getting this book. I have the earlier, rarer one but in fact it's printed very cheaply for a start, so this was a very necessary book. I've wanted to get it for ages but you know, the money required always makes me feel guilty. Sometime soon I'll break down. So anyway, I haven't read the text yet.

Re: Rockwell and Leyendecker: I love both men's artwork. I've never had the least doubt that Rockwell worshipped Leyendecker, "copied" him in his illustrative/Post style, and probably, being ambitious, took over a lot of his contacts etc. eventually. However, Rockwell continued to change and develop, which Leyendecker did not(he was also 20 years older than Rockwell and fully developed before Norman came on the scene). If Rockwell has merely continued imitating the much more famous(then) Leyendecker, he would have faded too--but Norman didn't let that happen.

If all artists who learn by studying and(sometimes slavishly) imitating other artists they admire are to be criticized/vilified, it wouldn't leave many artists to admire.
I'm just loathe to attribute base, negative motives or personalities to characters who the authors did not speak with first hand--and even if they had, my god--try writing a "truthful" account of any two artists working today with this sort of business and personal relationship. There would be multiple versions and perspectives of everyone's "good" or "bad" behaviour, depending on one's POV.

Of course the authors have to choose a POV but I'm always leery of accepting biographies of people long dead as "this is the way it was". I sure wouldn't let it taint my admiration of Rockwell, is what I'm driving at.

At least Rockwell, the usurper, carried Leyendecker's coffin at his burial.

John A said...

Leyendeckers work always seemed so cold and alien; His rigidly posed Aryan mannequins,wearing clothing with creases so sharp they could cut glass,and those rubbery chinless babies always left me feeling a little queasy. Rockwell may have borrowed from Leyendecker in a few areas,but everything that I've seen or read about NR, from his earliest commercial work to his golden era spanning decades with the Saturday Evening Post proves that the guy was loaded with natural talent and would have risen to the top with or without any assist from Leyendecker.

About ten years ago I had a chance to see NR's work on display in San Diego. His work is amazing close up.

I.D.R.C. said...

OF course I know about both artists' work but the relationship is new to me. Backstory is always a revelation.

I have to say though, considering them both, It's almost like the difference between Disney and Clampett, or Boris and Frazetta. One is mostly corn and pander, the other has some jazz. One is interested in deeper things than the other. Although I can see great skill all around, I don't find it hard to point out the master.

I used to have a DaVinci sketchbook where he drew study-after-study of draped and folded fabric. Pages of them, no subject other than a pile of cloth. Each more stunning than the one before.

Leyendecker reminds me of this, as it is apparent he loves those clothing folds. He loves then so much that he makes a modernist statement with them. They are both realistic and idealized. In his folds I see at least a partial definition of the ideals of the early 20th century.

chrisallison said...

I got to see some Leyendecker's in person at a small museum in Fullerton. Enhancing the whole experience was Marshall Vandruff giving us an annotated tour.

These works in person were just really something out of this world. Looks like these pictures you've posted have the saturation pumped a little. It's really amazing to see all of his strokes and how confident and deceptively simple he kept everything.

This is an interesting concept. Seems like with most history, there's an innovator behind great ideas, then there's somebody else that promotes themselves better and takes credit. A lesson perhaps for those who want to make the history books? (Find reclusive geniuses who's ideas you can steal?)

Anonymous said...

It's pretty obvious that Rockwell based his drawing style at least on Leyendecker - and may have also used his connection/association with Lyendecker to further his career in other ways too.
Rockwell was a great illustrator to be sure, but Lyendecker's artwork has something else going on that seems more sophisticated.

Deniseletter said...

I thought that until a certain time only could be made Renaissance-like art, because I have not seen anything else then I wondered if in this style could be represented images of the twentieth century, but I see something similar here.Both artists are fantastic!

Whit said...

Lyendecker's brother was a decent illustrator but didn't enjoy the level of success of his more famous sibling.

Phantom Spitter said...

I'm not crazy about Rockwell, but this Leyendecker stuff is great!

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Chris: I just couldn't make it to the Fullerton exhibit. It hurts to be reminded of it.

Mitch K said...

Wow, this these are really great! Thanks for sharing!

Lester Hunt said...

Dear Eddie,

Here is another take on the same book -- at least it sounds like the same one:

Leyendecker is amazing but I prefer Rockwell. R. often has a grittiness and humanity that seems lacking in L. Also, those criticisms of R. don't sound terribly convincing to me. He was a self-promoter? Doesn't a self-employed artist pretty much have to be? If you aren't going to promote yourself, who will? Also, a lot of behavior that gets described as "stealing clients" doesn't seem unethical or immoral to me. Bear in mind that human beings are not property and therefor cannot be stolen.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Lester: I wish i'd taken the time to compare similar Rockwell and Leyendecker covers side by side. The manly pictures i posted don't make my point well.

That's because I changed my mind about what I wanted to say after I'd gone to the trouble of scanning the pictures in and formatting them. I just couldn't bear to start over again with visuals that would have supported my argument better.

Operation GutterBall said...

Norman rockwell studied under Leyendecker. See the Rockwell documentary.

Anonymous said...

My favourite pseudo science is robot mechas as military weapons!

Anonymous said...

Don't kid yourselves. Leyendecker and Rockwell are commercial illustrators whose work is about as profound as Gilligan's Island.

Sam Basques said...

It is true the Rockwell chased Leyendecker for the first part of his career as a young artist. He strove to copy Leyendecker's style, never actually accomplishing this feat. Leyendecker was a major perfectionist, continually practicing and re-drawing things. There are thousands of sketches of hands by Leyendecker. He was probably then father of the illustrated hand.

But Rockwell eventually fell into his own style, after he moved away from Leyendecker and became immersed into another town and society.

The truth is, Rockwell rose to great acclaim due to self promotion and boastfulness. Leyendecker was quiet and reserved, very private about his life. It's only now that we're seeing that while Rockwell was good, it was Leyendecker who did it all first, and did it better.

jbclvd said...

Interesting blog thank you for posting. Your personal feelings with regard to Rockwell's motives and ambitions toward Leyendecker smack of personal opinion rather than relaying factual information.

Artists are very supportive in mentoring other artists, the very best more often than not did not lose this quality. They openly and generously share their knowledge and insights towards another artist's interest in growing and developing. It is mutual, I am certain that Leyendecker gained as much as he gave from the younger artists that approached him. I saw a letter or note on the internet where Leyendecker went into significant details to one young artist as to the specific steps involved in Leyendecker creating an illustration. I also read that Rockwell's son discussed how his father Norman Rockwell was very aware of Leyendecker and Beach's relationship, but that it was something not discussed publicly, which is understandable.

This in mind one can appreciate to a limited degree why Norman Rockwell would view Beach's contribution as lacking and that he viewed him as a parasite.

Leyendecker, in leaving Beach half of his estate at the time of his death,($30,000) certainly would puts an end as to Leyendecker having viewed his private relationship with Beach in any negative sense.

What would Leyendecker felt about Norman Rockwell's feelings towards Charles Beach? I'd like to think that Leyendecker would have held to his general view of the world and told Rockwell to mind his own business.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. Leyendecker's work is stunning, as is Rockwell's. I'm no expert; just a layperson who appreciates wonderful talent, and both men had it.

One fundamental difference that I see between the two is that Leyendecker's work seems to carry a level of sophistication, a veneer of suave and polish that puts him head and shoulders above many of his peers. Rockwell's work lacks the sophistication, but carries a more down-to-earth "reality", a grit that connects more with the working man.

Both are fine, and to me, it's a bit like comparing top-drawer champagne with a fine burgundy. Both are excellent, both have different qualities and both appeal to different tastes.