Tuesday, August 01, 2006


Young Norman Rockwell dreamed of the day he would paint as well as his idol, the great illustrator J.C. Leyendecker. Rockwell spied on Leyendecker, trying to discover the secret of his genius:
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?
But Leyendecker's secret had nothing to do with his brand of brushes. A few years later, Rockwell visited Leyendecker in his studio and observed Leyendecker working on the painting above. He recalled:
New Rochelle published a brochure illustrated with reproductions of paintings by all the famous artists who lived in the town. Joe worked on his painting for months and months, starting it over five or six times. I thought he'd never finish it.
The painting was beautiful, with many fine touches.

It was nearly finished, and the client would have been happy to get it. Yet, Leyendecker remained unsatisfied. Rather than completing the painting, he set this version aside and started all over again, searching restlessly for the image he wanted. The final published version looked like this:

Nietzsche once wrote, "you admire the beauty of my spark, but you don't feel the cruelty of the hammer on the anvil that makes it happen."

Leyendecker paid a heavy price for that spark. Whatever it cost, the young Rockwell must have concluded that it was worth it. When Rockwell's turn came, he paid too. Rockwell may not have traded his soul to the devil, but he painted "100%" in gold at the top of his easel to make sure that he never gave anything less. That credo kept Rockwell at his easel seven days a week painting countless studies and refining his craft as his first wife filed for divorce and was hospitalized for depression. She was alleged to have committed suicide. His second wife was hospitalized for alcoholism and depression. Rockwell himself sought professional help for his own depression. And yet, the brilliant pictures kept on coming.

Today, we admire such artists from a safe distance. Few of today's heavily promoted artists are willing to spend the same time on the anvil. I can't say that I blame them, especially when most of their audience is incapable of distinguishing real sparks from glitter.


Dominic Bugatto said...

Would that severe cropping in the final have been done by the client , or did he dramatically change his own composition?

Great piece.

Painter X said...

One of the things rarely mentioned about the great Leyendecker is that a good deal of what he did he drew out of his head, with no reference, and he could freely alter or change the drape of a cloth, the face of the model, and colors too, if he chose. Just look at his horses! No horse could ever hold a a pose that long, and Leyendecker never used photography. The guy simply drew and drew and drew, and memorized until he could do it all. There's nobody like him today, and few in the history of painting.

Ever since I saw his work for the first time in '95, I have been an avid fan. I wouldn't be so quick to write off the average viewer though, David. JC was extremely popular in his day, and I believe if people were exposed to his work today, it would garner the same ga-ga response.

Hilus Anendorf said...

Great post, as usual! I can see Leyendecker's influence on Rockwell's work. Amazing guy, this Leyendecker, gotta see more of his work. More post, more! haha. Saludos.

David Apatoff said...

Dominic, Leyendecker chose to close in on his subject and crop it that way. Personally, I like the first version better. (I also would not have chosen to replace the sun with a wing.) But I think the way he played around with different elements is quite interesting.

Painter X, Rockwell sure agreed with you about the drawing. He said that Leyendecker's drawings were superior to those of any other illustrator in America. As for the audience, I hope you're right. I think artists with eyes to see would still be thrilled but I suspect that the popular audience has moved on. It cares far less about technical craftsmanship, discipline and skill (and in fact, often lacks the patience to linger over an image long enough to appreciate such things). It seems far more partial to spontaneous, impetuous, emotional pictures. As a result, artists seem less interested in paying the dues that Leyendecker paid.

Maybe it's just a corrollary to the 20th century de-definition of fine art. Maybe it's partly that anyone can simulate some kinds of artistic skill with technology (such as photoshop). Maybe it's just that static images can't compete with blinking images on a computer monitor or television screen.

Amy C. Moreno said...

What a tremendous post. I love Leyendecker's work..never knew how much Rockwell was influenced by him. Do you have a favorite book about Leyendecker that you would recommend? I think the tide will turn, so that people will begin to crave technical excellence again in drawing and painting skills. I hope it's true. fascinating to read (by painterX) that Leyendecker drew much from his head with no reference..due to drawing from life so much. Wow

spacejack said...

Wow that's a great story behind those two paintings. Fascinating to compare them.

The second one does look a little too bright and slick, but then looking back at the first one, it seems a bit dull.

For some reason, his sword arm in the second one looks just a bit weird to me, like the elbow's not quite in the right spot. His torso also looks kinda thick. The darker colours in the first make him seem more normally proportioned.

I think I prefer the wing in the background of the second, as well as the background colour. Those elements make it feel quite modern.

(This is beginning to sound like I'm panning both images, but I'm not - they're both amazing. I just wish there were a larger version of the second so I could see the details.)

Anonymous said...

"I can't say that I blame them, especially when most of their audience is incapable of distinguishing real sparks from glitter."

From my experience vast majority of potential buyers can hardly distinguish glitter from specks of mud, let alone sparks from glitter.

"I suspect that the popular audience has moved on. It cares far less about technical craftsmanship, discipline and skill (and in fact, often lacks the patience to linger over an image long enough to appreciate such things)."

We are oversaturated with images from an infant age. TV, movies, ads, billboards, mags, PC games, comics etc etc...
Public don't mind design, they can't tell a great composition when they see one, they can't even tell low quality print from original piece. They don't demand quality.
99,9 % of viewers are not capable of explaining what makes a particular piece so good, why they like it (past the subject matter).
As a matter of fact, I'd say that ALL the viewers care about is subject matter (as long as painting match the curtains). Nothing else.

David Apatoff said...

Amy, the most ambitious book I know devoted to Leyendecker (but which is now out of print) is Michael Schau's biography. The best book that is currently accessible is the excellent book by Fred Taraba and Kent Steine. There is a DVD out there, but I haven't seen it.

From my perspective, the most poignant treatment by a respectful contemporary is Norman Rockwell's section on Leyendecker in Rockwell's easily accessible autobiography, My Adventures As An Illustrator. It is an excellent read for many reasons-- smart, witty and profound. And the section about Leyendecker is very sad.

Irene Gallo said...


Excellent post, as usuall!

You got the people at ConceptArt talking about it too:


E Colquhoun said...


I am new to your blog and I am mighty impressed. Your range of subjects, and your eye why you chose them, is wonderful.

As for "Nietzsche once wrote, "you admire the beauty of my spark, but you don't feel the cruelty of the hammer on the anvil that makes it happen." ...That's the rub isn't it. And that is what seperates the people that "play" at being an artist and those that give their lives to their art and craft.

I can't imagine that having Norman Rockwell for a husband or a father would have been a lot of fun because he would have always been working. His work would have come first.That is the way that it has to be if you hope to reach his level of craft.

Love your blog!

Shane White said...

That last bit.

Never truer words were spoken.


Santiago Mansilla said...

thank you for share those GREAT images!

Joshua James said...

Wow. That was a beautifully written post.

Just this last weekend I went to Stockton CA to the Haggin Museum to check out Leyendecker's show there. It was as Amazing as expected.


Mike Bear said...

Sometimes your words give me goosebumps, David. Thank you for creating this blog.

David Apatoff said...

Mike, thanks for your kind words. These pictures make me feel exactly the same way, and I am so happy to share them with people who appreciate them.

PJ Lynch said...

What a terrific insightful post!

David Apatoff said...

PJ-- Thanks very much for the kind words. It's a pleasure to have you here.