Sunday, November 4, 2007

J.C. Leyendecker Exhibition

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Many years ago, the Norman Rockwell Museum in New England put together a traveling exhibition of Rockwell's work. Its California stop was in San Diego, and though I had a good reason for not seeing it (my wife and I had just had a child), I always have regretted missing it.

With this in mind, I made a point to find the time to see an exhibition of one of Rockwell's idols and forerunners, J.C. Leyendecker, at the Fullerton Museum Center in Orange County, Southern California. (It's a tiny but nice little museum with lots of character.)

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Leyendecker was one of the premier commercial illustrators and artists of his generation—and he was working in what probably is considered the Golden Age of American illustration. Though not as well known today (at least among lay people) he is greatly admired by other illustrators, and much of his work remains iconic and recognizable. He is perhaps best known for his Arrow Collar shirt ads. But he also was known for many other advertising campaigns, as well as for his covers of the Saturday Evening Post (where Rockwell would eventually follow in his footsteps and gain his own legacy). Leyendecker produced more than 300 covers for the Post alone over a 40 year period. (Leyendecker also is credited with inventing the "baby new year" concept, which he produced variations of on covers throughout his career.)

The exhibition includes about 50 pieces, which obviously is just a tiny fraction of his full output. (Pictured above is a piece that was included in the exhibition.) And while the exhibition is fairly representative of the breadth of his work, it nevertheless would be challenging in such a small exhibition to fully capture the magnitude of his artistry and achievements. An original work of art obviously can take look very different than its printed reproduction, and its amazing to see what Leyendecker could convey with the boldest and simplest of brush strokes. (I'm fortunate to own a rare, out-of-print hardcover book of his work.)

Rockwell gained popularity for perfectly capturing and dramatizing the everyday lives and ideals of the average American. While Leyendecker did so to a degree as well, his work was much bolder and idealized—his figures, particularly his males—were angular and heroically proportioned. And his strong and powerful compositions and design sense underscored this aesthetic. (Please keep in mind I'm not saying that made either artist better or worse—this obviously was just a reflection of their styles and personal artistic philosophies.)

Anyway, the show ends November 18. I highly recommend this opportunity to see this rare opportunity to see the original work of one of the field's finest commercial illustrators.

(For more samples of Leyendecker's work go here and here.)

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