If you are like me, you have probably seen the work of J. C. Leyendecker and mistaken it for that of Norman Rockwell; this is completely understandable, because Leyendecker's art and career made him Rockwell's idol and later, mentor. Many of the themes and subjects that are identified as quintessentially Rockwellian, such as America, family, and holidays, were all influenced and developed from this bachelor immigrant's work.
Joseph Christian Leyendecker was born March 23, 1874, in Montabaur Germany; his family immigrated to Chicago, Illinois, in 1882. At the age of 16 he commercially produced 60 Bible illustrations even before he had any formal training; he then studied at the Chicago Art Institute, after which he spent a year at the Acadamie Julian in Paris, where he was influenced by the work of Toulouse Lautrec, Jules Cheret, and Alfons Mucha, a leader in the Art Nouveau movement.
In 1899 he returned to Chicago and began his formal commercial career. That year he produced the first of what would be 322 covers for The Saturday Evening Post; thus began what would be a forty-four year association. In 1900 he moved to New York, the hub of publishing and commercial art. Here he developed the Arrow Collar Man, an advertising icon which along with Charles Gibson's Gibson Girl defined fashionable American society in the Twenties. His magazine covers helped develop images and traditions that stick with us today; the New Year's Baby, the chubby Santa clad in red and white, flowers on Mother's Day (his picture of a bellhop delivering hyacinths on a cover of an issue celebrating the very first Mother's Day is credited with starting it).
During the Thirties, however, his popularity began to decline. It was the Depression, and the economic situation put an end to the starched collars and elegant appointments that had fuelled much of Leyendecker's commercial art. A change of editors at The Saturday Evening Post put a damper on his relationship with the magazine, and he had fewer and fewer commissions from them; in 1943 he published his last Post cover.
Leyendecker died on July 25, 1951, and was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery. Norman Rockwell was a pallbearer at his funeral, but he carried more than the body of his friend and mentor. He carried on an artistic inheritance that is still influencing culture today.