I admit to having a ‘thing’ for vintage large format magazines. Over the years, I’ve amassed quite a collection of these oversized periodicals; Esquire, Time, and the Saturday Evening Post to name a few. Out of the entire collection, the Saturday Evening Posts stand out the most due in large part to the stunning cover artwork of J.C. Leyendecker.
Leyendecker was one of the pre-eminent American illustrators during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries in what is called the Golden Age of American Illustration. His strong illustrative style often mixed fantasy with realism; like adding butterfly wings to people or depicting real people interacting with fictional characters. He also had a remarkable knack for combining areas of meticulous detail with large areas of negative space. His clever narrative intelligence and compositional prowess were second-to-none.
During his epic run on the Post, he made an indelible mark on Americana by inventing the New Year’s baby and popularizing the pudgy red-garbed rendition of Santa Claus. He also introduced the iconic traditions of flowers on Mother’s Day and fireworks on the 4th of July. Not too shabby.
Even with his stellar body of work and distinct contributions to American culture, Leyendecker is not well-known to today’s general public. Instead, much of his legacy has been lost in the shadow of his successor on the Post and close friend, Norman Rockwell.
Rockwell idolized Leyendecker, evidenced by his early work being derivative or thematic reinterpretations of his work. A perfect example of Rockwell’s respect for his mentor was his decision in 1963 to end his cover run on the Post at 322 issues, the same number Leyendecker finished with, as an homage to his hero. I think that says it all.
Personally, I have studied Leyendecker’s art in earnest for weeks and have learned a great deal from it. This is the kind of work that modern-day designers should be studying, but often don’t. Leyendecker breaks down design to its bare principles and puts them on display. Examining his artful execution and crisp technique would do any artist or designer some good.
Also: There’s something else about these Saturday Evening Post covers that brings a smile to my face: the interplay between the artwork and the magazine titles. Positioning the art in front of, or on top of, the magazine title really creates a strong and dynamic image. It also shows me the sheer amount of confidence that the editors had in their brand at the time. This is something that is seldom seen these days; with the glut of insecure brands out there it would be pretty tough to get away with this type of direction consistently.