Image credit: J.C. Leyendecker (1874–1951), Men with Golf Clubs, Painting for Arrow Collar advertisement, ca. 1909. Oil on canvas. National Museum of American Illustration, Newport, RI
Under Cover: J.C. Leyendecker and American Masculinity on View May 5-August 13, 2023
New-York Historical to host screening of Coded: The Hidden Love of J.C. Leyendecker in July as part of NewFest
This spring, a new exhibition at the New-York Historical Society examines the work and influence of J.C. Leyendecker (1874–1951), a preeminent illustrator and commercial artist who helped shape American visual culture in the first three decades of the 20th century through captivating advertisements including the legendary “Arrow Collar Man” and countless covers for the Saturday Evening Post. As a queer artist whose illustrations for a mainstream audience often had unspoken queer undertones, his work is especially revealing for what it says about the cultural attitudes towards homosexuality of the period. Under Cover: J. C. Leyendecker and American Masculinity, on view May 5—August 13, 2023, is organized by New-York Historical from the collection of the National Museum of American Illustration, Newport, RI.
“Under Cover: J.C. Leyendecker and American Masculinity deepens our understanding of the struggle for full civil rights as Americans of the LGBTQ+ community,” said Dr. Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of New-York Historical. “The exhibition is part of New-York Historical’s ongoing commitment to tell stories of Americans whose lived experience, though important and consequential to our history, is so often absent from textbooks in schools and colleges. New-York Historical’s collaboration with the American LGBTQ+ Museum, which will be housed in our institution’s new wing, will further enable meaningful conversations about LGBTQ+ history and its rightful place within the American narrative.”
“J.C. Leyendecker was an amazingly talented artist whose illustrations have come to embody the look and feel of the first half of the century while simultaneously demonstrating how fluidity in gender expression and queer representation were actually quite common at the time, contrary to current assertions that they are unique to our own moment,” said Donald Albrecht, guest curator. “Not only did his work exemplify the zeitgeist, but it depicts a deeply nuanced view of sexuality and advertising that broadens our understanding of American culture.”
Under Cover: J.C. Leyendecker and American Masculinity showcases 19 of the artist’s original oil paintings and a wealth of related ephemera, and features both Leyendecker’s editorial work, such as magazine covers, as well as commercial illustrations that appeared in the pages of popular publications, on roadside billboards, in store windows, and on mass transit. His aesthetic influence extended to Norman Rockwell, his colleague and eventual successor as the Post’s premier illustrator. The exhibition is organized into two primary sections: one exploring Leyendecker’s depictions of the male body, either semi-nude or clad in body-revealing garments, and a second focusing on his images of male intimacies, often of men sharing sexually charged looks. The model for many of his illustrations was Charles Beach, his lover and eventual business manager.
Under Cover delves into the early politics of sexual identity and gender while simultaneously examining how Leyendecker helped establish a nationalistic ideal of elite and athletic white male beauty. To address this aspect of his work, the exhibition juxtaposes some of Leyendecker’s paintings with artifacts that offer counter-narratives to his works’ exclusionary nature, including depictions of fashionable African American men during the Harlem Renaissance. Also providing crucial context: a selection of contemporaneous advertisements with queer connotations and a digital show of images depicting gay culture in New York during Leyendecker’s time, including plays about lesbians and men in drag that appeared on Broadway, effeminate male nightclub performers, and queer artists who wrote poems and created drawings about same-sex desire.
The exhibition locates Leyendecker’s work within the evolution of commercial illustration, when advertisers sought to sell products by emotion and feeling and not only by factual representation of a product’s utilitarian characteristics. These commercial trends can be seen in Leyendecker’s work creating advertising illustrations for companies such as Gillette razors, Ivory soap, House of Kuppenheimer menswear, and Interwoven socks. He also developed campaigns for Arrow collars depicting handsome, idealized men wearing shirts and detachable collars manufactured by Cluett, Peabody & Co. Laying the groundwork of Leyendecker’s implied gay narratives, these ads starred fashionable men in stylish settings engaged in activities such as boating, golfing, or reading in men’s clubs. In his work, Leyendecker created drawings depicting multiple kinds of masculinity for the mass market, from feminized men like the languidly posed males in Interwoven ads who look at and caress their sheer stockings to elegant men of leisure like the Arrow Collar Man to manly men like muscular sailors, lifeguards, and athletes.
Leyendecker’s suggestive images aligned with his era’s sexual mores. Starting in the latter decades of the 19th century, small but dense subcultures that defied sexual and gender conventions became increasingly visible in cities like New York. Members of these subcultures often identified themselves with specific styles of dress, mannerisms, and language. As a queer Manhattanite immersed in the city’s sophisticated visual culture industries, Leyendecker was most likely cognizant of these queer identity markers, sometimes depicting them in his illustrations.
Under Cover is organized by New-York Historical from the collection of the National Museum of American Illustration, Newport, RI. The show is guest-curated by Donald Albrecht, and coordinated at New-York Historical by Rebecca Klassen, curator of material culture. Drawing on three decades of scholarship, the exhibition is aided by a committee of advisors: Dr. Elspeth Brown, Professor of History at the University of Toronto; Dr. Monica L. Miller, Professor of English and Africana Studies, Barnard College; and Dr. Michael Murphy, Associate Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Illinois Springfield.
On Friday, July 7, New-York Historical, in partnership with the American LGBTQ+ Museum and NewFest, New York’s leading LGBTQ+ film and media organization, hosts a screening of the documentary Coded: The Hidden Love of J.C. Leyendecker (2021). Directed by Ryan White, the film focuses on J.C. Leyendecker as one of the most prominent artists of his time, whose story is now largely forgotten. Forced to keep his sexuality a secret, his coded imagery spoke directly to the gay community and laid the foundation for LGBTQ representation in advertising today. Additional details to follow.
Private group tours can be arranged throughout the run of the exhibition. Family friendly story times featuring books about Pride will take place during the exhibition’s run. Learn more at the DiMenna Children’s History Museum’s family calendar.
Exhibitions at New-York Historical are made possible by Dr. Agnes Hsu-Tang and Oscar Tang, the Saunders Trust for American History, the Evelyn & Seymour Neuman Fund, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of the Office of the Governor and the New York State Legislature. WNET is the media sponsor.
About the New-York Historical Society
Experience 400 years of history through groundbreaking exhibitions, immersive films, and thought-provoking conversations among renowned historians and public figures at the New-York Historical Society, New York’s first museum. A great destination for history since 1804, the Museum and the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library convey the stories of the city and nation’s diverse populations, expanding our understanding of who we are as Americans and how we came to be. Ever-rising to the challenge of bringing little or unknown histories to light, New-York Historical will soon inaugurate a new wing housing its Academy for American Democracy as well as the American LGBTQ+ Museum. These latest efforts to help forge the future by documenting the past join New-York Historical’s DiMenna Children’s History Museum and Center for Women’s History. Digital exhibitions, apps, and our For the Ages podcast make it possible for visitors everywhere to dive more deeply into history. Connect with us at nyhistory.org or at @nyhistory on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, and Tumblr.