Norman Rockwell is seen as the American illustrator, famous for his Saturday Evening Post magazine covers and quaint drawings of middle American life. But before Norman Rockwell, there was another preeminent illustrator — and he was gay. J.C. Leyendecker produced beautiful paintings, drawings and illustrations for use in advertisements and editorials. And he often featured his longtime lover Charles Beach as a subject.
Why have we not heard much about Leyendecker? In part, because Rockwell’s legacy obscures those that came before him. But it’s also possible that Leyendecker’s subjects — the male body in full or partial nudity — were incompatible with America’s Puritan mores.
Collectors Weekly spoke with Leyendecker expert Alfredo Villanueva-Collado who notes, “As a literature professor, I was fascinated by the semiotics of Leyendecker’s images, because I know a lot of gay artists had to use what I call the “palimpsest technique.” Palimpsest refers to the fact that parchment used to be so expensive they would have to paint it over to write something new, and that is the essence of semiotics, the text that is hidden beneath the visible text. Especially in literature, in anything having to do with gays, it’s been done to perfection. You have to hide it, not expose it like you can today.”
Leyendecker’s coded vocabulary had everything to do with showing the male body as a thing of beauty. Interestingly, Leyendecker’s most-seen work was in the Post, which was known to be extremely conservative. Of his representations of masculinity, says Villanueva-Collado, “ Well, it’s very interesting because President Roosevelt called these images of American males “the commoner.” But this is not the commoner. This is the American macho male before his aggrandizement as a killing machine. His soldiers, beautiful as they are, are always shown helping others, saving others.” So in some ways, Leyendecker was presenting an alternate version of how American masculinity could perform.
For more with Villanueva-Collado, and more examples of Leyendecker’s work, check out Collectors Weekly.