Top critical review
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on November 2, 2008
Any new book about Leyendecker is a welcome event. This volume is an ambitious effort with many excellent images. Try to focus on the pictures and avert your eyes from the text, which is hilariously inaccurate.
As just one example, the authors write: "After Leyendecker's precedent-setting career, Charles Livingston Bull, John Clymer, Steven Dohanos, John Falter, Anton Otto Fisher, Harrison Fisher, James Montgomery Flagg, Charles Dana Gibson, J.F. Kernan, Frederic Remington, Robert Riggs, N.C. Wyeth, and other famous artists went on to make their names with the Post." It's hard to imagine how a sentence could be more wrong. Several of the listed artists (Remington, Gibson, Fisher, Wyeth) "made their name" BEFORE Leyendecker made his, and were in fact dead before the end of Leyendecker's "precedent-setting career." Other artists on their list (Bull and Flagg) were Leyendecker's contemporaries, NOT his successors. Flagg was far more famous in their lifetime than Leyendecker. But most importantly, it's hard to think of more than two (or at most, three) from this list of illustrators who actually "made their names with the Post." Some did not work for the Post at all.
Such errors are common in this book-- apparently, the authors feel free to simply make such things up (although based on the number of rave reviews the book is receiving, most readers don't know enough about the subject to tell the difference.)
Putting factual errors aside, the authors would've had room for more (and larger) images if they had been willing to let go of a few pet fixations, such as Leyendecker's gay relationship with model Charles Beach. It is certainly appropriate for the authors to note that the famed Arrow man "was not only a homosexual but a kept man, the live-in lover of the famed artist who thrust himself into such an exalted status," but 200 pages later their focus on "thrusting" continues unabated. We are still reading that "Charles Beach and Joe Leyendecker are held up as examples of monogamy among the gay community, so often criticized for promiscuity," or that "Charles' Dorian Gray image never [ages] in Joe's eyes nor in ours either" or that "members of the gay community [remember Leyendecker] for icons of masculinity and sensitivity." After a while, these musings become presumptuous and insulting to the gay community.
Finally, on a personal note, I believe that a biographer has an obligation to avoid using his or her subject as a platform for self-aggrandizement. It is amazing how many of the "milestones" of Leyendecker's life took place long after his death, and coincidentally are centered around the authors' own gallery shows and sales of Leyendecker's work, or around their promotion of the term "imagist" to describe his work, or around public relations for their illustration museum. The art of public relations is very different from the art of painting, and this would have been a better book if the authors had the restraint to keep the two separate.