By CLINT SCHEMMER

Joseph Christian Leyendecker created American icons, yet his own celebrity proved ephemeral.

There are half a dozen good reasons to see the exhibit "J.C. Leyendecker: America's 'Other' Illustrator" now at Belmont, but among them is this: It teaches a poignant lesson on the fleeting nature of fame and good fortune--to say nothing of popular taste.

Leyendecker, the subject of this traveling show, rose from an immigrant, middle-class background to become the nation's "king of illustrators," only to see his style eclipsed as World War II changed everything.

It's staggering to experience the power and beauty of this man's full-size original works and contrast that with how unknown he is to most people today.

In his prime--which lasted for more than 40 years--Leyendecker's work was everywhere. Gracing more than 500 covers of the best-selling magazines and countless ads and posters, it was familiar to everyone and admired by millions.

Leyendecker was a trend-setter and taste-maker with few equals. In the early 20th century, his elegant style--unique, but with elements of Art Nouveau and Art Deco--was fresh and different.

Think of him as the Calvin Klein/Annie Leibovitz/Steve Jobs of his time.

"I think it's very hard for us--as contemporary people with access to the Internet and every possible form of media--to imagine the reach of an artist who is creating work for a public that get all of their information and entertainment from print," said Stephanie Plunkett, chief curator of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass.

"Magazines had an extraordinary reach, as did newspapers. The Saturday Evening Post, for which Leyendecker did 322 covers, was read in one out of every nine American households during its heyday."

This Sunday, Plunkett will visit Belmont to give a gallery talk and help visitors better appreciate Leyendecker's legacy and understand the artistic era in which he and other great illustrators--Charles Dana Gibson, Frederic Remington, John Held Jr. and Winslow Homer--worked and lived.

icon inspires an icon

There could hardly be a more appropriate speaker, for Leyendecker helped give us Rockwell.

His elder by 20 years, Leyendecker inspired Rockwell when the latter illustrator was getting started, an influence immediately noticeable in Rockwell's early works.

Rockwell, quite the storyteller, recounted how--when both men lived in the artists' colony of New Rochelle, N.Y.--he would follow Leyendecker to see what he was looking at, to discern what he was thinking about, Plunkett said in an interview this week.

In the 1920s, so one tale goes, Rockwell hid behind the town's train depot just to watch Leyendecker step off the train from New York City and climb into his limousine for the ride home.

They became very good friends, Plunkett said. Rockwell was one of the few trusted in the studios of the 14-room, French-style chateau built by the reclusive Leyendecker and his younger brother Frank.

Frank, also a very talented illustrator, even gave Rockwell the secrets of their special medium--which gave their paint a slippery quality that betrayed no brushstrokes' bristles on their canvases. The effect, when combined with his vivid, fluid style, J.C. called "controlled spontaneity."

'king of illustrators'

Leyendecker had shown great talent from an early age, drawing on textbooks and oilcloth his mother gave him from the kitchen of their home in Chicago, where they immigrated from Germany. In his teens, he apprenticed at an engraving company, training at the Chicago Art Institute at night.

In adulthood, formally educated at the Academie Julian and Academie Colarossi in Paris, and influenced by the advertising art of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Jules Cherêt and Alphonse Mucha, he became "an extraordinary artist," Plunkett said.

"He was a very important figure, somebody who inspired many generations to come of people who were illustrating."

J.C. Leyendecker's work spawned fashion trends, made millions of dollars for his commercial clients, created the winsome Kellogg's Kids to adorn boxes of toasted corn flakes, sparked the tradition of giving flowers to your mom on Mother's Day with one Saturday Evening Post cover, created the New Year's Baby and popularized our mainstream image of Santa Claus, sold war bonds in two world conflicts and set women's hearts aflutter.

One advertising image for a shirt manufacturer brought thousands of love letters to its handsome, debonair Arrow Collar Man--"and, of course, he was a drawing, he was a fiction," Plunkett notes. He got more fan mail per week than film star Rudolph Valentino. (Charles Beach, model for the first Arrow Collar ad, became J.C.'s assistant, business agent and life companion.)

"The images that Leyendecker created--which were all about a fabulous sense of style, beautifully drawn and so elegantly and heroically painted--really set the tone for what Americans could aspire to," Plunkett said.

" I think what people loved about Leyendecker and about Rockwell and a few of the other artists that were so prominent was that Americans could see the best of themselves in those images."

why did artist fade?

The work of Rockwell, whose zenith was decades closer to us in time, has had far more staying power.

Plunkett chalks that up mostly to Rockwell's more popular, Everyman choice of subjects and the fact that Leyendecker--on the rocks financially toward the end of his life--left no important collection of his works to a major museum that could promote it and keep it in the public eye.

The WWII public's preference for a more realistic style--along with a new art director at the Post who sacked many of its old standbys--spelled far fewer commissions and the decline of Leyendecker's career. In the 1940s, having made and spent several fortunes, he had to discharge his household staff.

When J.C. died of a heart attack at home in 1951, at age 77, only 12 people attended the funeral in his studio.

He was buried in an unmarked grave in New York City's Woodlawn Cemetery.

Norman Rockwell, a friend to the last, was one of his pallbearers.

Clint Schemmer: 540/368-5029

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