After seeing the Leyendecker exhibit last summer, I was thrilled to learn a new collection of his work was soon to appear in book form. I received it off my wish list last month and have been devouring it since (thanks!). First off, these aren't so much X-out-of-Y stars reviews. If I'm talking about it here, it's good, and if I was already eyeing it, it has great art. But there's still plenty to discuss.
The book fills a much-needed hole in having Leyendecker's work more exposed and better reproduced. It doesn't, however, fill the hole as much as I'd hope. Over the years, his junior contemporary Rockwell had 2 ginormous collections of art printed (and many smaller ones): one was an oversized beast dedicated to his Saturday Evening Post covers, the other to his art in general. Both are gorgeous, out-of-print, and much-cherished parts of my collection. Leyendecker needs similar.
In the meantime, this book has some wonderful reproductions of his work, and a gallery of supposedly complete images for every Post and Collier's cover he produced (and a few other series), in chronological order. This same format was used in the aforementioned Rockwell book, and though it means most of them are small, it's still very good for getting a solid grasp on the man's career and progress. There are charges that one 2-page spread actually reproduces a forgery, which is interesting.
I confess I went in not knowing a ton regarding his career timeline and the details of his work outside of his Post and Arrow illustrations. I learned more at the exhibit, and the book sets it together in context. His early work looks very little like what he became known for. I had always assumed that he had developed his trademark style in his 20's sometime. But as I look it over, it looks like he was about 35 or so when that look really started to take hold. That was fascinating to learn, being a 34-year old struggling to molt into an ever-better artist.
At the same time, it was interesting to notice something else: it seems that his work seemed to peak around the age of 50. Perhaps this is an issue with people who work in stylized manners--you can hone that stylization to a super-sharp edge, but then what? Some artists seem to deal with it by changing to a new style and beginning the growth process again. But when looking at his colleague/competitor Rockwell again, you see someone who started out in the shadow of Leyendecker eventually becoming an artist producing ever-better work even up through the 1960's when he would've been in his 70's. Part of this was due to Rockwell's change in venue and concepts, but his technique as a realist continued to improve and improve, and he largely left behind the sort of caricature that was popular in Leyendecker's heyday. Not that that is anything to be ashamed of--if I could become that good, and have the string of non-stop hits Leyendecker had, I would have no complaints at all. Oh, who am I kidding, I'd probably still be unsatisfied with myself.
The text provides wonderful insights into the world of Leyendecker's heyday, and is a great portrait of illustration in its Golden Age. What is perhaps unfortunate is that the text does come off as...strident? The authors are definitely champions of Leyendeckers work, and are frustrated that he has not attained the reputation they think he deserves. That's fine--it takes that sort of attitude to put in the work necessary for a book of this sort. However, it's a little unfortunate that the text at times reflects a "sour grapes" attitude with regards to Leyendecker not getting the credit deserved for innovations--for instance, a strong case is made for switching the spotlight away from Haddon Sundblom with regards to the modern portrayal of Santa Claus. At other times, the authors take pot-shots at contemporaries who would've been Leyendecker's friends in their time. With work this good, it is enough to simply bring it out of the attic and make it available again, with biography. I'm convinced that the work is so good that just seeing it is enough to make a new generation of fans. Had Leyendecker had a champion for his work after his death, an estate that was caring for his reputation, the entire situation the book is trying to ameliorate would not have been.
So, where the text is plain biography, it's fascinating, but beyond that it requires a little salt. I thought I might have been unusual in my reading of the text, but it appears many others have noticed these things as well, going on to point out factual inaccuracies and such where they regard the works of others. Still, this is the best Leyendecker book I've seen, and is a must-purchase.
2 days ago