A small baby holds onto a parachute, a burst of confetti surrounding him as he welcomes the New Year. A floral arrangement becomes a gift to a matriarch celebrating the first Mother’s Day in 1914. A linebacker rests with a football in his hands on a late November day. A bearded, rosy-cheeked man in a red suit with white fur trim hugs a small child, a sack of gifts precariously balancing on his shoulder.

Each of these iconic images had once been ideas, painted out in brushstrokes by Joseph Christian Leyendecker, a prolific illustrator with a career spanning almost half of the early 20th Century. Now, more than 100 works by Leyendecker hang at the Reynolda House Museum in Winston-Salem.

Leyendecker lived from 1874 to 1951, working as an illustrator and marketing advertiser. For decades, his works would be found on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, influencing the likes of Norman Rockwell. With visible brushstrokes and a slight stylization to his pieces, the artist developed several icons of American culture: the Thanksgiving football game, Mother’s Day flowers and an early version of Santa Claus.

“Leyendecker is interesting because the work is familiar,” Phillip Archer, deputy director of the Reynolda House, said. “He’s sort of the most famous artist we didn’t know we knew.”

Archer finds that Leyendecker’s work fits into the same realm that the Reynolds lived within. According to him, the same issues of the Saturday Evening Post could very well have been found strewn about the Reynolda House in the era of its preservation — the works seem to give even more of a glimpse into the trends that families like that of RJ and Katherine Reynolds would have indulged in.

“Joseph Leyendecker especially was enormously influential in helping to build a shared sense of culture,” Archer said, “because his illustrations were omnipresent in advertisements and magazine covers. His work just completely overlaps with the era that Reynolda interprets.”

The exhibit feels like a walk through decades of consumerism. The beginning features oil paintings, studies of people and charcoal etches that capture quickly fading moments. As it goes on, advertising displays show up more. The larger pieces become magazine covers. A row of collars hangs on the wall.

One figure keeps popping up: the Arrow Collar man. Based on his life partner, Charles Beach, the Arrow Collar man symbolized a brand of shirts. With a clean stroke of white paint around the neck, a bust of Beach alone enticed customers into buying an Arrow Shirt of their own.

If you look past the pleasing color palettes and the expert oil painting, though, you can see something else.

As much as Leyendecker’s works shaped American culture, his pieces become a mirror for it, including its ugly side.

Though Beach served as the main model for the Arrow Collar Man, references to him seem shrouded in subtlety, for the self-preservation and safety due to the taboo of homosexuality in society. An educational blurb of text mentions how the Arrow Collar man became a sex symbol, standing for refined tastes, yet looking at the works, both the model and the painter’s sexuality remain hidden.

A quote from Norman Rockwell in the exhibit states that Leyendecker could “never paint a woman with any sympathy.” Without much interest in the complexities of women’s lives, it makes sense that only one of his many icons, the Mother’s Day flowers, relates to female experiences.

In other works, people of color are only portrayed as servants to an idealized and romanticized white middle class. Depictions of black men are limited to those of servitude, which is pointed out beside a large original piece of a man offering up a silver platter full of pork for a Christmas feast. Black women are relegated to roles as caregivers and nannies for white children. The works of advertisements and marketing seem to reflect the time, drawing on pre-Civil Rights era attitudes.

J.C. Leyendecker, The Fourth of July Flagpole, 1937, oil on canvas, (c) 2019 National
Museum of American Illustration, Newport, RI. Photo courtesy American Illustrators Gallery,
New York, NY.

An original painting of a 1937 Saturday Evening Post cover shows a pair of children hanging onto a street pole. A blond boy waves his cap in the air, excitedly gazing at the festivities. Gripping tightly onto the pole below him sits a young black boy, his glance cast downward, timid and seeming unsure of his stability. A note beside it mentions that the model in question was asked by Leyendecker to pose looking afraid.

The piece is captioned “July Fourth.”

Leyendecker and the Golden Age of American Illustration runs through Dec. 31st. Learn more at reynoldahouse.org.

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