Charles Dana Gibson
and the Gibson Girls
In Victorian times, illustrators for popular magazines had as much influence on people as movies and television do today. Just as we now look for fashion ideas and moral inspiration from celebrities, actors, or musicians, so the Americans of the 1890's and first two decades of the past century found their hopes and ideals expressed in the pen-and-ink drawings of Charles Dana Gibson.
Many writers have attempted to describe the Gibson Girl, but Susan E. Meyer, in her book America's Great Illustrators did it best and most simply: "She was taller than the other women currently seen in the pages of magazines.. infinitely more spirited and independent, yet altogether feminine. She appeared in a stiff shirtwaist, her soft hair piled into a chignon, topped by a big plumed hat. Her flowing skirt was hiked up in back with just a hint of a bustle. She was poised and patrician. Though always well bred, there often lurked a flash of mischief in her eyes."
The flash of mischief was not lost upon readers. It was a characteristic they loved, that seemed to exemplify the American spirit of resourcefulness, adventurousness, and liberation from European traditions.
Then "inventor" of this elegant, willowy image of feminine beauty was born on September 14, 1867 in Roxbury, Massachusetts, a descendant of sturdy, hard-working New England stock. His father was a Civil War lieutenant who dabbled as an amateur artist, and his mother was a warm-hearted spontaneous woman who lavished affection and encouragement on her five children.
During a childhood illness, Gibson's father taught him how to make silhouettes of people, animals, and trees, and eventually Charles became so adept at it that when he was twelve, his parents entered his work in an exhibition that gained him his first recognition as an artist.
When Charles was of high school age, his parents scrimped and saved to send him to the Art Students League in Manhattan, a fine school boasting famous painters like Thomas Eakins and William Merrit Chase on the staff. Charles' fellow students included the soon-to-be-acclaimed Western painter Frederic Remington.
Gibson studied for two years, before the financial hardship on his family made him decide to go to work so that he could pay his parents back for their generous support. Unfortunately, the skill that he had displayed as a silhouette artist was not evident, at first, in his pen-and-ink work. He made the rounds of all the magazines and publishers, both large and small - he had good business sense - with no success, until finally in the fall of 1886 he managed to sell, for four dollars, a small drawing of a dog chained to his doghouse, baying at the moon.
The purchaser of this work was Life magazine, at that time an influential humor publication edited by John Ames Mitchell, an artist himself. Although he thought Charles' work was crude, he saw the "honesty and courage" in it, which led him to give Gibson guidance and then more work - for the next thirty years.
Gibson was nothing if not determined, and he parlayed his first sale (after celebrating his new professional status with a seventy-five cent chicken pie) into an ever-growing business. Month to month his income increased steadily, and he found himself a studio. He poured over English and American magazines for new techniques and ideas, and when, in 1889, he was earning enough money for a trip to England and Paris, he went there specifically to study.
He met his idol, the English artist George du Maurier, who did satiric drawings for Puck, and when he came back to America Gibson developed a new vitality in his style. Du Maurier was famous for his drawings of striking society women, and soon Gibson would be, too.
By 1890, the artist was working for all the major publications in New York: The Century Harper's Monthly Weekly Bazaar plus doing his weekly drawings for Life. Then, with the creation of the "Gibson Girl," as she came to be called, he became - in modern parlance- a superstar.
The Gibson Girl was, in the artist's own words, "The American Girl to all the world," even as she raised her new-fangled golf-club and cried "Fore!" She was spunky and sentimental, down-to-earth and aristocratic at the same time. And she appeared in drawings that captured with bold craftsmanship such timeless themes as love, money, self-deception, and social climbing. One brilliant and moving series published in 1899 even shows the Gibson Girl from infancy to old age.
Gibson's captions gave the drawings, with their masterly evocation of mood through light and shadow, the quality of short stories. And indeed, in such series as "Mr. Pipp's Education," which was about a henpecked husband and his family traveling through Europe, Gibson created the visual equivalent of a novel.
The country rewarded this artist and social commentator (he preferred to see himself as the later) with the greatest adulation ever seen up to that time for an illustrator. Not only did he become a social lion and New York's most eligible bachelor (until he settled down with Virginia society belle Irene Langhorne in 1895), but he saw the nation decree "Gibson-mania" for the next two decades.
There was merchandising of the Gibson Girl on the level of Mickey Mouse or Star Wars. Large size books ("table albums," they were called), china plates and saucers, ashtrays, tablecloths, pillow covers, chair covers, souvenir spoons, screens, fans, umbrella stands...all bore the image of Gibson's creations. There was even a wallpaper for bachelor apartments, with the lovely Gibson faces in endless array. A popular turn-of-the-century hobby, pyrography, saw people burning the Gibson Girl into leather and wood; and the image was traced and stitched into handkerchiefs. There were plays, songs, and even a movie based on his creation.
Amid this adulation, the well-bred young ladies of the time came (with their chaperones) to Gibson's studio to pose; later, many of them claimed to have been the "original" Gibson Girl. And to keep his heroine company, the artist developed the Gibson Man, (for whom he himself could have passed), handsome, courteous, romantic, and almost at all times subtly in awe of the gorgeous Gibson Girl; for what comes across most clearly in the drawings is that Gibson felt women were clearly the superior sex...at least in terms of points per game!
Yet the important thing is that Gibson was able to show this in a way that never offended men; if anything, his male audience must have nodded in comradely, if rueful, agreement Charles Dana Gibson's elegant drawings captured the spirit of an age. Never before had an artist stirred such commercial interest. Magazines fought for the exclusive rights to his services in negotiations which made headlines; but no matter what agreements he made (and Colliers offered him unheard of thousands of pre-tax dollars if only he would be theirs alone), he always maintained a connection to Life, the publication that gave him his start.
Indeed, after World War I (during which Gibson led his fellow artists in creating soul-stirring patriotic art) and the death of his mentor John Ames Mitchell, Gibson took over Life himself, as editor. Unfortunately - or perhaps it was fortunate from Gibson's point of view, because now he had the time to paint in oils, which his busy schedule had long precluded - the end of World War I brought a change in the country's attitudes, and John Held's flapper drawings took the place of the Gibson Girl in the public's heart.
Gibson dedicated himself to his paintings, depicting his surroundings and family near his home in Maine, and he earned critical acclaim for his efforts. By the time of his death in 1944, the world was much different indeed, but Gibson's spirit certainly lived on, especially in the rash of 1890's nostalgia movies produced in Hollywood in the early 1940's.
As critic Henry Pitz wrote in The Gibson Girl and Her America... "he used his talent to express his most earnest convictions. He was not a consciously deep prober, but many of the surface features to which he was sensitive had deep and mysterious roots. He had a lot to reveal about the characters of his era and had more than a little to do with the shaping of it"
That's a fine epitaph for this talented artist.