Joseph Christian Leyendecker’s life, career, and love is captured in a new film, Coded: The Hidden Love of J.C. Leyendecker, which I watched the other day on Paramount+. The documentary shows Leyendecker’s enduring influence on American culture and LGBTQ+ representation in advertising, as well as the relationship with his partner, Charles Beach, the muse for Leyendecker’s “Arrow Collar Man.”
The use of men as sexy symbols in advertising would not have existed without the influence of Leyendecker’s art. The German-American artist received training in Paris under the French Art Nouveau movement and imported some of this “Modern Style” to United States. His ad illustrations, which leaned into sexualizing his handsome male subjects, made brands like Arrow shirts fly off the shelves while also defining the image of the early 20th-century American man. Many of his illustrations featured intimate gazes between two gentlemen. Often, if there were two gentlemen and a lady, the two men would be focused on each other and not the woman.
Additionally, Leyendecker painted over 400 magazine covers in his career — over 300 alone for The Saturday Evening Post — essentially creating the design template still in use today. His stock took a plunge along with Wall Street following the Great Depression, when shrinking wallets also meant a return to social conservatism. The public turned away from Leyendecker’s eroticized male forms toward Norman Rockwell, a more traditional illustrator who was mentored by Leyendecker.
The image below of an Ivory Soap advertisement from 1900 is one of his early pieces before he met Charles Beach; however, it is a great example of the coded messages in many of his works. Can you spot the “code” in this image? Once you see it, you’ll probably never not see it.
In honor of the (Winter) Olympics beginning this week, I’ll end with this 1932 edition of The Saturday Evening Post. Strangely, the conservative, anti-New Deal, and middle class family orientated publication had what is (to most modern eyes at least) a sexualized ‘gay’ image of the U.S. Olympic Eight on its cover, painted by Leyendecker. This was not the only time that Leyendecker put semi-naked men on a pedestal as you’ve seen in some of his other illustrations.