Artists used to dream about painting a cover for The Saturday Evening Post. But there was a big difference between the printed covers America saw and the actual oil paintings created by Post cover artists.
The young Norman Rockwell said that his highest ambition was to paint a cover for the Post, which he called “the greatest show window in America for an illustrator.” The Post had the largest readership of any magazine and paid well, but most of all, its cover spot was culturally important. Readers studied and discussed the covers in homes all across America, and they were even used as teaching tools.
In the 1930s, a young art student in Minnesota wrote home about her classes:
[T]his is what they are teaching us to do here in Illustration. We are doing covers for the Saturday Evening Post, and everyone has a [Post] cover at their side which they consult and worship while working at their own sketch. ¹
Rockwell studied those early Post covers and daydreamed about his future:
I used to sit in my studio with a copy of the Post laid across my knees. “Must be two million people look at that cover,” I’d say to myself. “At least. Probably more. Two million subscribers and then their wives, sons, daughters, aunts, uncles, friends. Wow! All looking at my cover.” And then I’d conjure up a picture of myself as a famous illustrator and gloat over it, putting myself in various happy situations: surrounded by admiring females [and] deferred to by office flunkies at the magazines. ²
Rockwell and other artists could tell very little from the printed cover of the Post about the magic behind the scenes. What was required to create a successful Post cover illustration? Rockwell recalls that he spied on one of the Post’s most prolific and accomplished cover artists, J.C. Leyendecker: “I’d followed him around town just to see how he acted….I’d ask the models what Mr. Leyendecker did when he was painting. Did he stand up or sit down? Did he talk to the models? What kind of brushes did he use? Did he use Winsor & Newton paints?” ³
Today the internet gives us the ability to compare the original paintings with the printed Post covers, and enjoy the details that were lost in the printing process. First of all, we should note that the original paintings that were reproduced on the cover of the Post were far larger than the magazine — sometimes four or five times larger. Compare the size of these Leyendecker covers with the original paintings:
They were painted with oil paint on canvas, just like fine art in the greatest museums. Often, Post cover artists had been trained in a classical fine art tradition. Leyendecker, for example, trained in Paris at the Académie Julian.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the original paintings and the printed Post covers was that the original paintings were often done in bright, glowing colors while the printed covers were often muted and fuzzy. Compare this printed cover by Leyendecker with his original painting. We can see how the printed cover could impress the young Rockwell …
… yet it conveyed only a fraction of the talent in the original:
Leyendecker painted details with exquisite care, even though he realized that readers would never really be able to see or appreciate them.
Let’s compare another published version of a Leyendecker cover with the original painting.
Once again we can see a huge difference between the original painting and the printed version that showed up in mailboxes across America. Notice the care that Leyendecker invested in capturing the feel of the velvet in the man’s jacket, despite the fact that it barely reproduced with the printing technology of the day.
Note the flesh tones on Leyendecker’s cherubs and compare them to the published version.
Even the bone structure and flesh of the man’s hand is treated with great subtlety that few readers of the Post were likely to notice.
These extra touches required not only great talent and technical skill, but also extra time, which was precious for artists working under a deadline. Great cover artists like Rockwell and Leyendecker painted hundreds of covers under deadline. They must have been sorely tempted to cut corners; after all, the differences would not be apparent to the average Post reader. Leyendecker alone painted 322 Post covers, but he consistently maintained his high standards.
What motivated these great craftsmen to remain at their easel making the best art they could, despite the fact that it would not always be appreciated?
Illustrator Robert Fawcett once observed, “The argument that ‘it won’t be appreciated anyway’ may be true, but in the end this attitude does more harm to the artist than to his client.” These high personal standards are what made this elite group of artists so remarkable.
- Quote by author and illustrator Wanda Gag, from The Gag Family: German-Bohemian Artists in America by Julie L’Enfant. Top ↑
- Rockwell: My Adventures as an Illustrator Top ↑
- Rockwell: My Adventures as an Illustrator Top ↑
“I began working for The Saturday Evening Post in 1916,” wrote Norman Rockwell, “and Leyendecker was my God.”
There are parallels between the two great illustrators, who later became friends. Both had very long careers with the Post: 45 years for Joseph Christian Leyendecker (from 1898 to 1943) and 47 years for Rockwell (from 1916 to 1963). Each artist created more than 300 Post covers.
Street or barrel organs were popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Although this century-old cover may be charming to us, the organs were not popular with everyone. According to Wikipedia, the organ grinders were often considered a nuisance and the cranking made some cranky. Charles Dickens complained that he couldn’t get a half hour’s writing in before one of those blasted organs disturbed him.
“To ask outright for money is a crime,” later echoed George Orwell, “yet it is perfectly legal to annoy ones’ fellow citizens by pretending to entertain them.” Be that as it may, the delightful little girls here are having a jolly time.
Leyendecker did a dozen Post covers revolving around World War I, from the tragic to the fairly light, as in “The Littlest Soldier” from 1916. Although it really isn’t light fare, considering that the children are undoubtedly acting out a scene they have witnessed among grown-ups.
Like the cover above, Leyendecker designed this to be noticed on newsstands to carry “further because a good cover has a distinct silhouette,” he noted in a 1932 Post story. “It should, too, tell its story in pantomime. A cover that carries an explanatory legend defeats itself.”
“Knight in Shining Armor”
This is the kind of opulent illustration many think of when they hear the name Leyendecker. Milady has found her knight in shining armor on his lavishly bedecked steed. Leyendecker was born in 1874 and grew up in Montabaur, Germany, a tiny town that goes back to the year 959. A medieval town wall, Crusader influence, and ancient buildings surely fueled the artist’s fascination with the middle ages, in particular coats of arms and armor. We’re not sure what the coat of arms carried by our knight on this 1926 cover symbolizes, but the golden banner at the bottom says “lune de miel,” a French phrase that means honeymoon.
Leyendecker illustrated ads for Kuppenheimer men’s clothing, Arrow Shirts and others. Whether in ads or on Post covers, Leyendecker’s women and men tended to be beautifully dressed. The young lady in this 1929 ad was Phyllis Frederic. According to the book J.C. Leyendecker by Laurence S. Cutler and Judy Goffman Cutler, Phyllis “passed Joe’s (J.C.’s) studio almost daily on her way to meet her father at (Norman) Rockwell’s studio.” Her dad, William Frederic, better known as “Pops,” is familiar to you if you’re a Rockwell follower, as he posed for that artist for several Post covers (see below).” (The name is spelled “Frederic” in the Cutler book; other sources spell it “Fredericks”)
“Doctor and the Doll” by Norman Rockwell
“The Doctor and the Doll” from 1929 was the most beloved of the many covers “Pops” Frederic posed for. Many artists used the same models. Not only were Mr. Frederic and his daughter, Phyllis, hired by Leyendecker in 1922, but the deal included another family member—Phyllis’ dog, Spot! Spot was a popular model with both Leyendecker and Rockwell.
“George Washington on Horseback”
The first president was a popular theme with illustrators, especially for the Fourth of July, as in this 1927 cover. Leyendecker chose a heroic pose for Washington, who was a cover subject 10 times, 5 times by Leyendecker. Although we doubt the general had been blessed with such an elegant saddle, we agree with the artist—he should have been. Leyendecker portraits on Post covers included Kaiser Wilhelm II, and a delightful rendering of William Howard Taft (see presidential covers).
If you look up Leyendecker in a pricey, high-end art book, much of what you will see are his more elegant, lavish illustrations, such as the “Knight in Shining Armor” above. Often overlooked or forgotten are his comic renderings.
The bottom line is that Leyendecker had more diversity of illustrative work than almost any artist. Some are humorous or cute, like our 1932 “model” here. His 300 Post covers, depict more than four decades of the heartrending (a devastated WWI mother receiving “the dreaded telegram”), the practical (a current politician), the fun, and of course, the elegant.
Next: “The Other Leyendecker”: Joe’s talented but less-successful brother, Frank X. Leyendecker.
Reprints of The Saturday Evening Post covers are available at art.com.
The most prolific cover artist from The Saturday Evening Post, J.C. Leyendecker, influenced the way we look at Santa during Christmas, turkeys and pies at Thanksgiving, and fireworks on the Fourth of July.
“Fourth of July, 1911”
A style that went from comic to elegantly lavish to sentimental made J.C. Leyendecker the most versatile of all the Post artists. His March 1909 cover gives us a delightful rendition of newly inaugurated William Howard Taft (See Post Presidential Covers) and an April 1912 cover shows a sumptuously attired couple on their Easter walk. From there he ventures into humor as in this cover of an urchin courting trouble.
Leyendecker was hired by legendary publisher, George Horace Lorimer, who purchased the Post in 1897, when it had a circulation of a few thousand. Less than 15 years later, this cover boasts of a circulation of “more than a million and three-quarters weekly.”
“July Fourth at the Beach”
Leyendecker illustrated more than 300 Post covers from 1899-1943 and became the go-to artist for the holidays. His New Year’s baby was legendary and it is a testament to the illustrator’s longevity that he did 36 of these. He also did more Christmas covers (although Rockwell was close behind) and far more Thanksgiving and Fourth of July covers (27 each) than any other Post artist.
The Leyendecker baby mostly, but not exclusively, represented the fresh, young New Year. The tot showed up occasionally at Easter, and as we see here, dressed in red, white, and blue for a 4th of July beach holiday.
“Fourth of July Parade”
Joseph Christian Leyendecker was born in a tiny village on the Rhine in 1874. His brother, Frank X. Leyendecker came along three years later. Frank, who also became an artist, did 15 Saturday Evening Post covers.
The family immigrated to Chicago in 1882. Joe was able to devote himself to art full time at age 16, although the family, which was lower middle class, could barely afford the luxury of art instruction for their sons.
The hottest day of the year is not deterring this corpulent couple from attending the local parade in this 1915 cover. By the way, mom and pop might want to keep an eye on Junior — those are firecrackers he’s hiding.
“Washington and WWI Soldiers”
Wartime brings out the patriotism, and Leyendecker invoked the spirit of George Washington to march along with the soldiers of World War I. This 1917 cover was the first of five times the artist painted Washington on the cover.
The following issue of the Post showed another side of the artist’s talent and patriotism: a recruitment ad for the United States Navy:
“Why Not Now?”
“Fourth of July, 1913”
Newspaper hats in the early 20th century seemed to show up for festive occasions: a Christmas 1903 cover shows children wearing newspaper hats while playing with their new toys; a 1919 Rockwell cover shows a child wearing just such a hat to welcome a homecoming soldier; and these children are decked out in stars, stripes, and newsprint to salute the 4th on this cover from 1913.
In this 1929 cover it is the image of a rugged, can-do Minute Man that symbolized independence for the 4th. Both Leyendecker and his friend and admirer, Norman Rockwell, relished period costumes and loved painting them. This is also the image most associated with Leyendecker: the handsome, dignified, chisel-featured man who was personified in his ads for Arrow Collars. Beginning in 1905 and continuing for 25 years, the “Arrow Collar Man” was the ideal American male.
“Arrow Collar ad”
A 1914 ad for Arrow Collars. Leyendecker was as well known for the Arrow Collar man as for his hundreds of magazine covers.
Artist J.C. Leyendecker did dozens of covers of babies, including this cutie. So how did a baby become a cover model for America’s most famous magazine?
The cute tyke in the high chair? Why, that’s one of our cover models, and how we loved hearing from him recently! David L. Johnson was one of Post cover artist J.C. Leyendecker’s famous New Year’s babies. The smiling gentleman is Mr. Johnson today. Same charm, more teeth.
Baby Delivery Boy with Hat boxes and Flowers – April 10, 1909
Along with sometimes lavishly dressed ladies and gentlemen, Leyendecker painted children and babies – lots of babies! His winsome tots did everything from delivering Easter boxes to carving a Thanksgiving turkey. The first New Year’s baby was delivered by the stork to welcome the fresh New Year 1908. The last New Year’s baby was bravely fighting the Nazis in 1943. These precocious youngsters did it all.
New Year Ticker Tape – December 30, 1933
In the 1930s, these poor little tykes were mighty worried about the economy (we told you they were precocious). The one greeting 1934 was encouraged at what he saw on the ticker tape. Which brings us to 1935, and our friend and cover boy, David L. Johnson. The artist depicted David trying his darndest to balance the budget. Walking a tightrope between a bottle of red ink and a bottle of black, he precariously balances the budget atop his cute little head.
Johnson tells us his grandfather was an illustrator named Orson B. Lowell. Lowell attended the Art Institute of Chicago and later moved lock, stock, and motherless grandchild to New Rochelle, which had become something of an artists’ colony. There Granddad hung out with artistic types like Post cover artists J.C. Leyendecker and Norman Rockwell (“He knew all those guys,” Johnson tells us). When J.C. Leyendecker was looking for a model for New Year’s 1935, his artist pal–Johnson’s grandpa–knew just the child.
Baby New Year Flying Bi-Plane – January 1, 1910
We get a brief history lesson reviewing the Leyendecker baby covers. The baby welcoming the year 1910 was flying a new-fangled bi-plane, a feminine baby in 1912 was carrying a “Votes for Women” sign. 1914’s tot was cruising the soon-to-be-opened Panama Canal.
Global War – December 30, 1916
The Post welcomed 1917 with a Leyendecker baby looking with concern at a damaged globe – could global war be looming? Alas, 1918’s tiny boy was helmeted and armed and ready to report for military duty.
Votes for Women – December 30, 1911
Thank you so much for getting in touch with us, Mr. Johnson. You’re the first Leyendecker baby we’ve had the pleasure of getting to know. By the way, we could still use your budget balancing skills. Questions about Saturday Evening Post covers can be sent to: [email protected] or by comments below. And if you know of former Post cover models, we’d love to hear from them!