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Charles Dana Gibson
(Roxbury, MA, 1867 - 1944, New York, NY)
Biography from American Illustrators Gallery:
Charles Dana Gibson was born into a wealthy New England family from Roxbury, then a suburb of Boston. His first interest in art was as a boy, watching his father cut family silhouettes. An enterprising lad, he started to cut similar silhouettes at the age of eight, but by the time he was twelve, he was selling them.
Through family connections, at fourteen years old, Charles was apprenticed to sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Cornish Colony founder and friend of Maxfield Parrish. After nearly a year in the Saint-Gaudens studio, he determined that sculpture was not his main interest and he took up pen and ink drawing. His parents, having already recognized early artistic talent and were quick to enroll him in the Art Students League.
In 1885, due to unforeseen family financial hardships, he was forced to leave school and to start his career art. Unable to find a job a job, he happened onto Life, a new magazine competing with the already well-established competitors, Puck and Judge. Life magazine saw his talent and enthusiasm and hired him on a trial basis to draw editorial cartoons featuring political figures. However, from the very start, Gibson’s interests were in portraying the social set rather than politicians, and the audience enjoyed the manner in which he poked fun at high society’s characters and their idiosyncrasies.
His trial monthly salary started at $33, but it was increased each month until in the third month it had reached $185. His value to Life, from his very first drawing, was quite tangible to the publisher because his drawings sold magazines. At the same time, he also consulted with another magazine Tid-Bits, later re-named Time magazine. Before long, Gibson was illustrating articles for Scribner’s Magazine, Century, and Harper’s Magazine as well as Life and Tid-Bits.
In 1890, Charles Gibson drew the first ‘Gibson Girl,’ and featured her in his first independent portfolio of drawings of beautiful women, only the portfolio had the same woman’s face, over and over again, in different poses and with different garb. Undoubtedly, his wife Irene Langhorne Gibson, was the model for the original ‘Gibson Girl.’
In 1904, his popularity and that of the ‘Gibson Girl’ had grown so large, that Robert Collier and his partner Condé Nast, tried to sign Gibson to their magazine team at Collier’s Weekly, just as they had done with Pyle, Remington and Parrish before him. Gibson refused due to his loyalty to Life, but Collier and Nast persisted, than compromised and agreed to a complicated sharing relationship with Life, for his services. It was tantamount to signing a major league baseball player and letting him pinch hit for two teams, but in different leagues. The contract was worth $100,000 for 100 illustrations over a four-year period. The amount of money was straggering in today’s terms.
In 1905, Gibson yearned to give up his pen and ink drawings and to emulate other artists whom he respected most: Abbey, Frost, Remington, and Parrish and he wished to paint in oils as they did. Yet, this was the height of his career and he recognized that it was the wrong time to be idealistic and self-indulgent, it was just going to be too expensive to stop working for such an immense salary, which had reached $75,000 per annum with other side deals still in place, including such the original Life commission.
Charles Dana Gibson’s greatest popularity was between 1900 and 1910, although he was productive well into the 1920’s. His best-known subject was of course, the proverbial ‘Gibson Girl’. She was well-known as the ideal image of youthful American femininity, the modern woman, athletic, smart, stylish, and desirable and she sold magazines. If Gibson suddenly had an idea about a different style hat, or gloves, or a belt, whole new fashion lines would start over night, for whatever the ‘Gibson Girl’ wore, every female desired. At one point, when Gibson placed a ribbon on her forehead with a certain style dress, on her tall statuesque figure, the country talked about the new style immediately and sweat shops roared with activity, trying to produce an entire new line of clothing.
While the nation was craving its own styles in art and architecture, searching for an American identity on the world scene, it did not need to search for idealizations in portraying the American woman. ‘The Gibson Girl’ satisfied that need by captivating the imagination of the country and by providing a perfect image of femininity, uniquely American of which everyone was proud.
In 1917, after he founding the Society of Illustrators, Gibson convened a subgroup of illustrators who pledged their efforts to help win the war. Included were James Montgomery Flagg, JC Leyendecker, Howard Chandler Christy, and others. Gibson had the foresight to set them up formally as The Division of Pictorial Publicity in the US Office of Public Information with himself as head. After the defeat of the Germans, he continued to take it on the personal quest to save Western Civilization by continuing to illustrate propaganda posters.
However, the public was more interested in forgetting the war. They wanted to know more about flappers, the Charleston, hot jazz music, fast cars, and booze. The ‘Gibson Girl’ was no longer de rigueur.
In 1920, Charles Dana Gibson headed a syndicate of illustrators, writers, and staff members, and they bought Life magazine at auction. Gibson held the largest number of shares. Unfortunately, new competition from the New Yorker, Fortune and Time, all pressured Life with tough competition, and it slumped further into near demise. Gibson sold the magazine in 1932, and at sixty-five, he retired and finally took up oil painting.
Although, not as successful artistically as his pen and ink drawings of decades earlier, The American Academy of Arts and Letters exhibited his work and a New York Times critic exclaimed, “Make no mistake about it, Charles Dana Gibson is a painter.” The public had long assumed that pen and ink were his only tools. They were uninterested in his oil paintings, and fickle, they soon forgot him.
Yet, the ‘Gibson Girl’ lives on, perhaps more than any other idealized beauty, the public still remembers her, and Gibson’s name has sustained itself, due to her strength.
Charles Dana Gibson died quietly in Maine in 1944, of a heart attack.
©2004 National Museum of American Illustration,