The Oarsmen of J.C. Leyendecker: Homeric or Homoerotic?

A 1932 edition of the American Saturday Evening Post magazine. Strangely, the conservative, anti-New Deal, and middle class family orientated publication had what is (to most modern eyes at least) a sexualised ‘gay’ image of the U.S. Olympic Eight on its cover, painted by the illustrator, J.C. ‘Joe’ Leyendecker. This was not the only time that Leyendecker put semi-naked men on a pedestal.

14 March 2017

Tim of Finland writes:

I am sure that most of Hear The Boat Sing’s American readers – and a majority of the rest – will know of the artist, Norman Rockwell. In a career that stretched from 1902 to 1976, he produced paintings and illustrations that (allegedly) reflected American life, especially in his covers for the widely circulated and influential magazine, The Saturday Evening Post. He was much-loved by Middle America but liberal critics dismissed his art as middlebrow, saccharine and idealised. Rockwell himself admitted that, ‘I paint life as I would like it to be’. Much less well known and little remembered is the man who inspired Rockwell, his self-proclaimed idol and primary mentor, Joseph Christian Leyendecker (pronounced Loin-decker).

J.C. Leyendecker in his studio.

Hunter Oatman-Stanford, writing in the online collectorsweekly.com in August 2012, said this about Leyendecker:

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….. While Leyendecker was also known for his depictions of apple-cheeked children and elegant women, it was his stern, brooding men who 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”.

A J.C. Leyendecker illustration from 1932. His women were never as beautiful as his men were handsome, and he always lamented his inability to truly capture feminine good looks.

In the notes for their 2010 exhibition, Norman Rockwell and His Mentor, J.C. Leyendecker, The American Illustrators Gallery wrote:

Rockwell virtually did everything possible to imitate Leyendecker….. He imitated (him) so completely the public became confused as to the source: Leyendecker or Rockwell? While Leyendecker received little adulation or credit for his truly iconic images, Rockwell took de facto credit for creating quintessential American icons…..Eventually, Rockwell replaced Leyendecker in America’s collective consciousness and took the crown as America’s greatest illustrator.

Amongst the things that Leyendecker created or popularised is the standard jolly, fat Santa Claus that we know so well, the giving of flowers on Mother’s Day, and the image of a baby with a sash to signify New Year.

A 1928 advertisement for the Arrow Collar and Shirt Company’s Trump model shirt (insert your own joke here). The Arrow Collar Man was one of Leyendecker’s most enduring creations, the highly successful campaign originally running from 1905 until 1931. Today, we might call the Arrow Collar Man, ‘metrosexual’.

While Rockwell was a family man with a small town taste and lifestyle, the sophisticated and hedonistic Leyendecker was, in his youth, quite the opposite – though his Wikipedia page (unlike the rest of the Internet) is strangely coy about his private life:

Many biographers have speculated on J. C. Leyendecker’s sexuality, often attributing the apparent homoerotic aesthetic of his work to a homosexual identity. Without question, [he] excelled at depicting male homosocial spaces – locker rooms, clubhouses, tailoring shops – and extraordinarily handsome young men in curious poses or exchanging glances. Moreover, Leyendecker never married, and he lived with another man, Charles Beach, for much of his adult life…

A sporting ‘homosocial space’ as depicted by Leyendecker.
I do not know if this image pre or post dates the one above but I think that it may be regarded as not gay but as ‘camp’. This word may come from the French se camper (to flaunt) and in modern times it is almost exclusively associated with the flaunting of homosexuality – but this was not always the case. It may have been just his sophistication that this man was flaunting.

I suggest that the difference between Rockwell and Leyendecker is well illustrated by their respective depictions of the American Thanksgiving Holiday.

One of Norman Rockwell’s best-known works, “Freedom from Want” (1943), part of a quartet called “The Four Freedoms”.  It is popularly taken to represent a Thanksgiving meal, though Rockwell did not specifically intend it as such.

Freedom from Want’s Wikipedia page says that:

To art critic Robert Hughes, the painting represents the theme of family continuity, virtue, homeliness, and abundance without extravagance in a Puritan tone, as confirmed by the modest beverage choice of water. Historian Lizabeth Cohen says that by depicting this freedom as a celebration in the private family home rather than a worker with a job or a government protecting the hungry and homeless, Rockwell suggests that ensuring this freedom was not as much a government responsibility as something born from participation in the mass consumer economy.

Leyendecker’s illustration for a magazine cover for Thanksgiving 1928 (many American Football games are traditionally played on that holiday).

Unlike Rockwell’s celebration of traditional family values, Leyendecker’s two hyper-masculine, square-jawed, all-American icons of Thanksgiving, a Puritan and a football player, eye each other like two men cruising a gay nightclub with a strict and peculiar dress code. It also shows Leyendecker’s great technical skill and faultless draftsmanship and is a far more interesting image than Rockwell’s bland (though artistically talented) painting – even if the viewer is not one of Dorothy’s friends. Ultimately however, here in HTBS Land, Rockwell is out of favour because, as far as I know, he only produced one (rather dull) image of an oarsman, while Leyendecker painted at least ten pictures of men made large by the repeated bending of an oar.

Norman Rockwell’s “Navy Academy Oarsman (Portrait of Captain Edwin Grimes)”, 1921. The original of this was sold in 2013 for $365,000. To me, Grimes looks a bit bored with holding the same pose and Rockwell’s depiction of his left arm and hand looks most peculiar. Overdeveloped oarsmen are often slightly deformed – but not this much.

Here are some of Leyendecker’s perhaps more obviously homoerotic depictions of rowers.

The cover for 1904 edition of Scribner’s Magazine that contained a ‘thrilling Harvard–Yale Boat Race Story’.
An illustration probably for a Scribner’s rowing-themed calendar, 1908.
The Popular Magazine, 1910.
Collier’s Magazine, 1916.
Poughkeepsie Regatta Programme cover, 1923.
For a Kuppenheimer clothing company advertisement, 1925.

Alfredo Villanueva-Collado, a former literature professor at the City University of New York and a J.C. Leyendecker collector, has been quoted as saying:

[Leyendecker’s] sportsmen aren’t really competitors. They were an image of the American male as huge and beautiful, but not threatening.

Not all of Leyendecker’s images had a gay subtext, probably not least for commercial reasons. When given free licence to depict sailors, he may have chosen to employ every stereotypical homoerotic image available:

Collier’s Magazine, 1917. Possibly an example of what Wikipedia called the ‘apparent homoerotic aesthetic of his work’.

However, when employed by the U.S. Navy to produce a recruiting poster, Leyendecker has to tone it down a bit

It is not always the case with Leyendecker’s ‘straight’ works, but I think here we see his frustration at not having the seamen that he really wanted.

The three examples of apparently ‘unsexualised’ images of oarsman by Leyendecker that I have found are, coincidently or not, all of Harvard men (no comments from Yalies please).

The Happy Rower, Scribner’s Magazine poster, 1906.
The Saturday Evening Post, 1907.
A 1907 picture for the Howard Watch Company, not in Leyendecker’s typical style.
The ‘timing’ picture as used in the final advertisement. Many of the subtleties of Leyendecker’s work were often lost in their final magazine reproduction.

Despite his obvious talent, Leyendecker’s work went out of fashion, money became tight, and he outlived most of his friends. His funeral in 1951 was attended by only five people, including his partner of 50 years, Charles Beach. The four pallbearers were three of his former male models – and Norman Rockwell.

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