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Joseph Christian Leyendecker (American, 1874-1951)
Born in Germany in 1874, Joseph Christian Leyendecker immigrated to the United States with his parents and younger brother Frank in 1882. The family settled down in Chicago, where Joseph’s mother’s uncle had founded a successful brewing company. There, he spent his adolescence working for an engraving firm, completing his first commercial commission of sixty Bible illustrations. Having both the financial and emotional support of his family, Leyendecker sought formal artistic training at the Chicago Art Institute, and he later studied at the Académie Julian in Paris with his brother, Frank, where he was exposed to the works of Toulouse-Lautrec, Chéret and Alphonse Mucha, a pioneer in the French Art Nouveau movement.
Returning to Illinois in 1899, J.C. received his first commission for a Saturday Evening Post cover—the catalyst for what developed into his forty-four year relationship with the most popular magazine in the country. The collaboration would ultimately produce over 300 cover illustrations, many of which transformed household traditions and became iconic visual images, such as his New Year Baby series and his portrayal of Santa Claus as a fat jolly man in a big red suit. The custom of giving flowers as a gift on Mother’s Day even originated from Leyendecker’s May 30, 1915 Saturday Evening Post cover, which depicts a young bellhop with hyacinths.
What made Leyendecker such a monumental artist, aside from his unrivaled draftsmanship, was his ability to draw upon common aspects of the era’s culture—from how men wore their suits to how they served their country—and turn them into a narrative that captivated his audience. Joseph Christian Leyendecker’s work so artfully captures the essence of his time, and yet his characters and compositions remain remarkably timeless.
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