In the late 1800s, artists influenced people as much as movies and television do today. Similar to looking at celebrities for fashion clues, our ancestors found their inspiration in the pen and ink drawings of Charles Dana Gibson.
In her book America’s Great Illustrators, Susan E. Meyer describes the Gibson girl: “She was taller than 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 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.”
Readers loved that mischievous characteristic. The Gibson girl exemplified the American spirit of resourcefulness, adventurousness and liberation from European traditions.
Charles Dana Gibson was born in Massachusetts in 1867, descended from hard-working New Englanders. His father had been a civil war officer and an amateur artist. Gibson’s father taught him to make silhouettes, and he got so good at it that when he was twelve, his parents sacrificed to send him to art school in Manhattan. Frederick Remington was a fellow student. Gibson studied for only two years until the financial strain was too much for his family and he decided to work to pay them back.
He tried to sell pen and ink drawings to all the New York publishers with no success, until 1866 when he finally sold a small drawing of a dog chained to an doghouse, baying at the moon to Life Magazine for four dollars. The editor encouraged his work and kept him employed for the next thirty years.
After that first sale, Gibson’s income increased steadily, earning him a studio, where he studied English and American magazines for new techniques. He traveled to England and Paris to study and met his idol, artist George du Maurier, famous for drawings of society women. Upon his return to American, Gibson’s drawings took on a new vitality. By 1890, Gibson worked for all the major New York publications: The Century, Harper’s Monthly, Weekly and Bazaar, plus a weekly drawing for Life.
He created “The Gibson Girl” and became a superstar of his time. While being spunky, sentimental, down-to-earth and aristocratic all at the same time, she became the icon of the American girl to the entire world. The drawings captured timeless themes such a love, money, self-deception and social climbing. One series published in 1899 showed her from infancy to old age. Gibson showed mood through light and shadow, and used witty captions to make his drawings like short stories. In one such series called “Mr. Pipp’s Education” about a henpecked husband and his family traveling through Europe, Gibson created the visual equivalent of a novel.
The impact of Gibson’s work on merchandising can be compared to Sponge Bob or Lord of the Rings in today’s market. There were table-album books, china plates, ashtrays, tablecloths, pillows, spoons, screens, fans and umbrella stands, all bearing the image of the woman Gibson created. Many young women who had posed for him claimed to have been his inspiration.
To keep his girl company, he created The Gibson Man – a handsome, courteous, romantic fellow, always subtly in awe of his female counterpart. The notion one got from his drawings was that Gibson felt women were the superior gender, deserving of admiration.
Soon flapper drawings took the place of the Gibson girl in the public’s affection, and with more time on his hands, Gibson devoted himself to oil painting. He painted family and scenes near his home in Maine. By the time he died in 1944 he’d already seen the revival of America’s love for Victorian themes and beauty, especially in the many nostalgic 1890s movies Hollywood produced in the 40s.
Charles Dana Gibson’s work expressed sensitivity and mystery that still lives on when we see the reproductions of the iconic woman he created and whom America fell in love. I’ve had Gibson Girl note cards, and there was even a US postage stamp. She’s a face we recognize as well as a creation that represents female beauty and grace. The Gibson Girl lives on today.