Leyendecker, Parrish & Sontag

Added on by Doug Dowd.

Leyendecker, Parrish & Sontag: Those three should start a law firm. The name sounds really good...

Back from sabbatical in Utah and teaching again. 

I'm leading a senior seminar for illustrators, a studio course devoted to onsite reporting and illustration: Reportage: Illustrated Perspectives in a Factual Landscape. The general nonfiction categories that the book/zinelike projects are required to address are social history, comedy of manners, informational subjects, memoir, and perspectival reportage. I put together a reading and viewing list for students late last year that articulates those categories and assigns examples to them. I've been meaning to post some of that document for GT readers, as I got a lot out of putting it together...

More to the point today, my second course is an academic culture studies offering, Commercial Modernism in America 1865-1965. A course by that title devoted to visuality might well cover a vast amount of material, from transportation design to typography. I have built the course around three basic areas, each of which permits me to address the interwoven histories of technology, distribution, commerce and aesthetics: periodical illustration, the comic strip, and design for animation. The production of course lectures is a highly relevant activity for my work in general. Which is wonderful. I'm having a blast. Yet. It's grueling.

(Funny, it doesn't look grueling.)

Today we spent a session addressing Maxfield Parrish and J.C. Leyendecker. The latter is the subject of recent book by the Cutlers (Laurence S. and Judy Goffam), of Newport, Rhode Island fame. The Leyendecker book provides extensive visual material, including reproductions of all 322 Saturday Evening Post covers that Leyendecker produced. The written material is acceptable, though the authors struggle with the same problem that dogs all writers on illustration, which is the underdeveloped analytical framework for the subject. Individual careers are addressed, but the larger frame of commercial image-making tends to slide by. There is a game attempt to classify Leyendecker as an "imagist" in the mode of the literary school of the same name and period, which seems worthy of more consideration. I recommend the book for people serious about American visual culture. (Edit: on longer reflection, the book matters for its reproductions, far less so for its text.)

In anticipation of the Leyendecker and Parrish material, I had the students read Susan Sontag'sNotes on "Camp" from 1964, which sure holds up well. (My bias in assigned readings tends toward primary sources, especially criticism.)

I got to the bottom of this post and decided to add this italicized insert to a discussion otherwise dominated by J.C. Leyendecker: Maxfield Parrish is a big subject of his own, and one that merits consideration in the world of camp. He mounted the most successful invasion of American domestic environments by any artist in our history. My lovely wife hails from Michigan, and her family has a cottage near Holland. A copy of The Dinkybird, the bizarrely titled image of the youth on the swing (above) hangs among a dozen other family artifacts on the wall, all others local. Parrish, with the avid collaboration of printers and sales agents, insinuated himself into stunning numbers of homes. You can still by large numbers of Maxfield Parrish prints (including Dinkybird) now translated into digital giclee processes, sampling the dreamy repose offered by such images in the first few decades of the 20th century.

Sontag's version of camp, which is of course seminal, includes a dimension that our more knowing period has forgotten: an abiding earnestness.

Below, two of her numbered notations:

18. One must distinguish between naïve and deliberate Camp. Pure Camp is always naive. Camp which knows itself to be Camp ("camping") is usually less satisfying.

19. The pure examples of Camp are unintentional; they are dead serious. The Art Nouveau craftsman who makes a lamp with a snake coiled around it is not kidding, nor is he trying to be charming. He is saying, in all earnestness: Voilà! the Orient! Genuine Camp -- for instance, the numbers devised for the Warner Brothers musicals of the early thirties (42nd Street; The Golddiggers of 1933; ... of 1935; ... of 1937; etc.) by Busby Berkeley -- does not mean to be funny. Camping -- say, the plays of Noel Coward -- does. It seems unlikely that much of the traditional opera repertoire could be such satisfying Camp if the melodramatic absurdities of most opera plots had not been taken seriously by their composers...


What Sontag identifies here as genuine camp has grown much rarer as we have maniacally embraced the ironic stance that late modern life has, in fairness, thrust upon us. Genuine camp is now almost unimaginable. The truly earnest now seem doomed to fundamentalisms of a thousand different sorts. And all tastes now seem like knowing ones. I suppose that certain territories in hip hop might involve truly camp sensibilities, but I am skeptical of this. The ghetto artifice is pretty thick, and the African American experience has always required a double awareness, the me and the me-they-see, especially when the cops drive by. In the early sixties, by contrast, the homosexuals cited by Sontag could use a me-they-see to maintain appearances, not suffer from them.

Sontag observed that the most accomplished practitioners of camp were homosexuals (pre-gay diction) and Jews. Presumably the prospect of childlessness, on the one hand, and a certain fatalism of Jewish history on the other focused such talents so strongly into athletic-aesthetics. There is in fact a blend of knowingness and tender feeling at the heart of camp, a sublimated risk; death forestalled by wit.

Which brings me to Leyendecker. The Arrow Collar man, first American sex symbol, carried the frame and bore the visage of Charles Beach, Joe Leyendecker's lifelong companion and lover. Beach became an object of female desire across the nation, in part because Leyendecker painted him as object of desire. Beach ran the household, and muscled out others, including J.C.'s brother Frank, also an illustrator, who subsequently trailed off into drink and dissolution. Norman Rockwell, who idolized Joe (as J.C. was known to friends) and lived in the same town for a while--New Rochelle, NY--was troubled by the control exerted by Charles Beach, but not particularly by the arrangement itself.

Leyendecker produced wildly successful works of culture--his 322 Saturday Evening Post covers established the graphic and narrative conventions of the modern newsstand. He worked constantly, lucratively, earned high acclaim. Yet he moved like a shadow in public. He granted few interviews, and did not call upon the editorial offices of the publications that sustained him. When he died, Beach destroyed all of his effects, as instructed. He left a giant pile of illustration work, and yet all traces of the man himself completely disappeared.

As a result, all clues to his work are embedded in the works themselves. And though Sontag did not mention him in her landmark essay, his work represents the camp aesthetic as plainly, wonderfully--riotously!--as anyone's, in any medium. The image below could scarcely be clearer in its intentions. Cheery little phallic growths respond to attention from a boy-butterfly bearing the mother of all watering cans. How's that for a resurrection!

By the same token, Leyendecker covered plenty of range, if always with rococo energy. As the Cutlers observe, like his fellow German-born American icon-maker Thomas Nast, Leyendecker produced lasting image vocabularies, including the iconography of Thanksgiving and football, as well as the New Year's Baby. I'd mistakenly thought the latter was the creation of Winsor McCay, and intend to review his first use of the image, which is in the ballpark, but Leyendecker's Saturday Evening Post cover of December 1906 features a modern putto with a pen, turning the page of a huge book. [Zed's dead, baby. Zed's dead...]

2015 Update: Roger Reed is of the opinion that Orson Lowell may have been the one who came up with the New Year's Baby. He and Leyendecker were friends. 

J.C. Leyendecker, Cupid, Saturday Evening Post cover, February 15, 1936

Maxfield Parrish, Dinkybird, 1904

Leyendecker, six Saturday Evening Post covers, 1923-24 (with particular note of the homoeroticized lifeguard, middle bottom row)

Maxfield Parrish, Daybreak, 1922. This image, of vaguely sexualized pre-adolescent girls decamped to a sunwashed Arcadian villa, was issued as a single sheet lithographic print for home sales in 1922. It sold fantastic numbers of copies. It has been reliably estimated that Daybreak appeared on a wall in 1 out of every 4 American homes by 1930. 

Leyendecker, Kuppenheimer Clothing ad (with mermaid!), circa 1930

Leyendecker, Arrow Collar ad, Charles Beach, model, 1922

Leyendecker, Watering the Lillies, Saturday Evening Post cover, March 27, 1937

Leyendecker, Baby Forges Ahead, Saturday Evening Post cover, December, 1930