An illustrated biography of German-American artist J.C. Leyendecker (1874-1951) sets the stage for his rise to fame:
To better understand the overall impact of J.C. Leyendecker, and of illustration art in general, one must recall the context of the age when illustration was the only way for the public to receive images. Harper’s and Scribner’s magazines were the first to use wood engravings for their covers, as selling tools. Other periodicals soon jumped on the bandwagon, and before long they began to print pictures inside as well.
Seeing their illustrations so enthusiastically received by readers, publishers tried images on posters and in advertisements, to a delighted public.
The half-century period between 1895 and 1945 was an era of unparalleled excellence in book, magazine, and advertising design. During this Golden Age of American Illustration, masters of the art created a visual history that not only captured viewers of the time with its intensity, style, and vividness but impressed on the life of the nation a distinctive stamp that has endured to this day. And no Golden Age artist made more of an impact than J.C. Leyendecker.
Over the course of his career, Leyendecker illustrated the covers of numerous magazines including 322 covers for Saturday Evening Post between 1899 to 1941, more than even his protégé Normal Rockwell. But he is equally well known for his contribution to fashion illustrations thanks to his advertisements for menswear manufacturers B. Kuppenheimer & Co and Cluett, Peabody & Company, maker of Arrow shirts and collars.
In 1905 he convinced Cluett’s advertising director to utilize a single male image to represent all of their products. The result was not only the first major branding initiative in advertising but also the first real advertising campaign ever launched. The campaign featuring the devastatingly handsome “Arrow Collar Man” was so successful that Cluett grew to a 96 per cent market share, putting much of their completion out of business. Says the biography, “These images of a sophisticated, elegant gentleman resonated with millions of viewers and sold to an eager society the idea of a glamorous lifestyle that helped mold the Roaring Twenties.”
Some of his Leyendecker’s most striking work can be seen in his illustrations of men’s evening wear which have become so iconic that many of them are still sold as posters today. Here is a collection of the best of these illustrations. (If some of them don’t look much like ads it’s because Leyendecker’s technique was to first paint the image on canvas then have it reproduced in multiple ad and poster formats by the client for whom it was commissioned.)