IN the first half of the 20th century, Joseph Christian (J.C.) Leyendecker was one of America's preeminent commercial illustrators; in fact, he was idolized by a young Norman Rockwell, who later befriended Leyendecker and lived not far from him in New Rochelle, N.Y.
But while Rockwell's name became synonymous with the Saturday Evening Post and Americana in general, Leyendecker's name fell into relative obscurity.
A traveling exhibition of more than 50 Leyendecker originals aims to change that. The exhibit, which opens Friday at the Fullerton Museum Center, features Leyendecker's war posters, advertising art and magazine covers, including 18 of the 322 covers he painted for the Saturday Evening Post -- one more than Rockwell -- from 1899 to 1943.
"Leyendecker virtually invented the whole idea of modern magazine design in the early part of the century," says Fullerton Museum Center curator Richard Smith. "While Leyendecker's work is not that well known, people will walk away from the experience of seeing his originals thinking they know a little more about illustration and the master of it that Leyendecker was."
The exhibition originated at Stockton's Haggin Museum last year. The collection is considered the largest public holding of Leyendecker originals and was assembled by former Haggin Museum director Earl Rowland in the 1950s.
"Earl had a number of different interests, and one of them was the work of contemporary commercial artists," says Tod Ruhstaller, the Haggin Museum's current director. "He had a talent for contacting these artists and going, 'Look, I'm a director of a small museum in Stockton, Calif., and I've always been a fan of your work and was wondering if you might have a work or two that you might share with the museum.' "
During his 26 years as director, Rowland added works by the likes of Charles Dana Gibson, Orson Lowell and Maxfield Parrish.
Unfortunately, he didn't get to Leyendecker, who passed away in 1951, in time, so he did the next best thing: He wrote to Leyendecker's sister Augusta, who donated most of the collection's magazine covers, including many of the holiday-themed covers Leyendecker was famous for.
Rowland also approached the Kellogg Co., which donated 14 World War I-era portraits of kids eating cereal.
"These are wonderful examples of Leyendecker's work and are emblematic of that clean, wholesome American youth advertising that was typical of the early decades of the 20th century," Ruhstaller says.
"By the 1950s, however, the paintings had probably been shunted off to a storage closet, and Earl was lucky enough to contact them at a time when nobody at Kellogg's wanted these things."
Aside from the Saturday Evening Post covers, Leyendecker is most celebrated for his fashion advertising work, particularly for Arrow Collars and Shirts. His images of sophisticated men sold everything from suits to long johns.
Though the Haggin collection includes only a few fashion examples, it does have a 42-by-24-inch painting for Cooper Underwear (the precursor to Jockey International) of an über-masculine male model in long underwear putting on an extravagant, gold-threaded robe.
"That piece is nothing short of a tour de force -- it's just unbelievable," says Bud Moon, a Chicago-based Leyendecker collector-historian.
A consultant for the exhibition, Moon is also trying to secure the Art Institute of Chicago as a final venue for the exhibit as it winds down a multi-city tour in 2009.
Wherever the show goes, "people will see that Leyendecker was a masterful designer and brilliant artist," Moon says.
"All this stuff was created to be seen by the public in printed form, which was often printed with limited color palettes, so when they see the originals in person, they'll see the excitement and vitality that exists in most of these paintings."