Artist Norman Rockwell used to own the cover of The Saturday Evening Post.
Rockwell’s illustrations, still famous today, included the burly cop buying lunch for a kid runaway; smiling elders presenting a Thanksgiving turkey to a table full of smiling relatives; a young girl sitting on a bench outside the principal’s office — with a shiner and a smile.
But Rockwell was really the second owner of The Post’s top page. Another guy was there first.
That guy was J.C. Leyendecker, who worked as a magazine cover artist in the U.S. from 1896 until 1950. Leyendecker created 322 cover paintings for The Post during his career, one more than Rockwell’s 321.
The artist’s cover designs and some original artwork will be on display this spring in “J.C. Leyendecker and The Saturday Evening Post,” now open at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass.
J.C. Leyendecker and The Saturday Evening Post
WHERE: Norman Rockwell Museum,
9 Route 183, Stockbridge, Mass.
WHEN: Through June 14
HOW MUCH: $17.50-$5
MORE INFO: 413-298-4100, www.nrm.org
Joseph Christian Leyendecker was born in 1874, in Montabaur, Germany. J.C. was still an adolescent when his family moved to Chicago. As a young man, Leyendecker found work at a local engraving firm. He and his younger brother Frank eventually enrolled at the Chicago Art Institute. The brothers later studied in Paris.
J.C. received his first commission for a Post cover in 1899, and began a career with the magazine that would last into 1943.
Art historians have said that Leyendecker and other illustrators of the day invented the modern magazine cover as a miniature poster that would both engage the viewer and help sell the issue.
In December 1918, with the U.S. fighting in World War I, Leyendecker painted a saluting Santa — a metal helmet replacing the traditional red cap. For Thanksgiving 1928, Leyendecker painted a pilgrim and a football player — both in detailed period attire — glancing at each other with stern faces. Kids diving into summer water, musicians on parade and Halloween witches against orange full moons were other subjects.
Museum officials said fashionable men and women also made Leyendecker canvases, and they grabbed spots on both magazine covers and advertisements for the “Arrow [shirt] Collar Man” and Kuppenheimer clothing.
Leyendecker also helped start a holiday tradition — giving flowers as gifts for Mother’s Day began with his Post cover of May 30, 1914.
The main part of the exhibit comes courtesy of William Hargreaves, a Rockwell trustee who has donated all 322 Leyendecker Post tearsheets to the museum’s permanent collection.
Hargreaves, a longtime collector of both Leyendecker and Rockwell memorabilia, likes to see how both artists’ work progressed during their Post careers. People who attend the exhibit will get that chance; the Leyendecker artwork will complement the museum’s ongoing display of all 321 Rockwell covers.
Rockwell, who was 20 years younger than Leyendecker, was also a fan.
“Like many illustrators of the era, Norman Rockwell admired and imitated J.C. Leyendecker’s distinctive style, particularly as a fledgling artist in search of his own voice,” said Stephanie Haboush Plunkett, the Rockwell Museum’s deputy director and chief curator. “The two enjoyed a warm friendship during their years as neighbors in New Rochelle, New York.”
Jeremy Clowe, a spokesman for the museum, said Rockwell considered Leyendecker a hero. He said one story says Rockwell stopped his own Post covers at 321 — deciding not to tie or overtake Leyendecker out of respect for the senior artist.
“Leyendecker had a heroic, kind of chiseled look to his figures, they weren’t the everyman that Rockwell portrayed, like the next door neighbor,” Clowe said. “Leyendecker’s works are very much of that art-deco period, they’re very glamorous men and women.”
The exhibit includes 26 original pieces of Leyendecker art, including several of his New Year’s baby paintings — a staple in The Post from 1907 through 1943. A selection of the artist’s Christmas, Easter and wartime paintings will also be part of the show.
Leyendecker died in New Rochelle in 1951. He was 77 years old.
Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 395-3124 or at [email protected] or @jeffwilkin1 on Twitter.