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Thursday, October 9, 2014

Charles Dana Gibson

Studies in Expression, Charles Dana Gibson--no two alike.
Mr. Gibson, Portrait of Himself,
Charles Dana Gibson
I love illustrators. I hate those who look down upon them as something less than artists. In fact, insofar as their work is concerned, I see little need to separate the two other than to say that while all illustrators are artists, not all artists could make it as illustrators. Technically, the only line between the two is that illustrators have traditionally created primarily for publication while artists...not so much. During his career, Norman Rockwell blurred the line between the two distinctions to the point art critics and historians have mostly given up drawing one in his case, preferring the "slash mark" instead--artist/illustrator. Besides Rockwell, I especially love the work of Stevan Dohanos, Howard Chandler Christy, Jon Whitcomb, Ben Stahl, Art Frahm, Richard Dadd, and James Montgomery Flagg. Another of my favorites (I'm surprised I've not written on him before) is Charles Dana Gibson. Gibson was not like any of the artists listed above. He seldom, if ever, painted, but his drawings have become as iconic as any of the others, his name more recognizable than most of them.

Women drop things. Often they're adverse to picking them up, especially wearing tight corsets, long dresses, and tall hairdos.
If you can't read the extensive captioning beneath
the drawing, it involves a wealthy father
interviewing a potential suitor for his daughter.
I think what I like best about Gibson is not so much his art, which, like all illustrators, and indeed, many other artists, has become dated. One look and it screams: early 20th-century. No, what I like best is his sense of humor. It's sharp and dry, subtle, but ever-present though one couldn't quite class him as a cartoonist. Many such artists have a dry wit. The fact that Gibson consistently worked in black and white with pen and ink, suggests an affinity to cartoon art, yet, despite his self-portrait (above, left) he seldom exaggerated proportionally. His expressions are sometimes a bit comical as seen in his Studies of Expression (top) but never cartoonish. Humor, like art, can be dated, and Gibson's sometimes is, but even a hundred years after the fact, I still found myself laughing out loud at some of his wry observations and titles seen in his work. Gibson's dialog beneath his Civil Service (above, right) reads like the script from a TV sitcom. Likewise, I can identify easily with the men diving beneath the table to retrieve their wives' lost items (above). Been there, done that.

A Word to the Wise, Have a Good Book in Case You Are Bored.
I found the contrast between the uncomfortably stiff collars of the two young
men and the lack of such in the female attire more amusing than Gibson's title.
One of Gibson's illustrations
from The Prisoner of Zenda.
Gibson was born in 1867 in Roxbury, Massachusetts. His family tree sported two U.S. senators hanging from its branches and came decorated with considerable wealth. Displaying a great deal of talent in his youth, and with a family who could afford to send him the best art schools here or abroad, Gibson's art training, though excellent, was surprisingly limited--a mere two years at the Art Students League in New York (which may account for why he seldom painted). Nonetheless he sold his first drawing to Life magazine in 1887. He was twenty at the time. From there he quickly moved on to Harper's Weekly, Scribners and Collier's. Quite apart from his talent and sense of humor, the young man was apparently quite the self-promoter--an extremely valuable personal asset for any would-be artist, then or now. Gibson's "big break" came in 1898 when he was commissioned to do illustrations for Anthony Hope's The Prisoner of Zenda (above, left) and later, its sequel Rupert of Hentzau. The two books became quite popular as much for Gibson's illustrations as for their plots.

Picturesque America (detail), Charles Dana Gibson.
(Bathing costumes, not swimsuits.)
The Gibson Girls
Of course, Charles Dana Gibson is best known for his girls. In 1895, Gibson had the great good fortune to marry a very beautiful woman, Irene Langhorne, who happened also to have four equally beautiful sisters, all of whom he persuaded to pose for his illustrators. Consequently, his iconic Gibson Girls were born, and with that many feminine personalities all around him, no doubt served as ready sources of humor, whether they realized it or not. They were simple, elegant, always beautiful, but the primary consideration in drawing them was being able to render hair...lots and lots of hair, stylishly coiffed, piled high, with not a single strand out of place. However it wasn't just the look these lovely ladies presented, but their spirit and the substantial, though often hidden, influence they exerted over their husbands, that made the Gibson Girls the epitome of early 20th-century femininity.

The title of this one has long-since been lost, and with it Gibson's personal slant on its meaning, though the tall, slender, businessman bears a striking resemblance to the
original John D. Rockefeller.
An early Life cover by Gibson dating
from 1906. It's not very "X-massy."
Someone once commented that Norman Rockwell was such a part of The Saturday Evening Post's success that he, in effect, "owned" the magazine. The same could be said regarding Gibson and Life magazine. Actually, starting in 1918, he did become the editor and eventually gained part ownership of the popular news and general interest publication. Despite a ready means of promoting his art in a magazine he virtually owned and edited himself, the popularity of his Gibson Girls declined after WW I. Gibson and his lovely wife retired in 1836 to their summer retreat on a seven-hundred acre island off the coast of Maine where he took up, quite belatedly, painting. He apparently wasn't very good at it, I could find only one example of any of his illustrations done in color, and that dated from 1903.

The RKO advertising department got ahead of the production department.
Fifty years after Gibson's death,
one of Gibson's "girls" was
honored with a postage stamp.
Charles Dana Gibson died at the age of seventy-seven in 1944, but not before having a strong cultural impact, especially upon the minds of Life magazine readers. Even before his death, RKO Pictures in Hollywood bought the rights to his drawings for use in a motion picture, The Gibson Girl, a musical comedy which was to star Ginger Rogers in the lead. However, financial setbacks at the studio and reportedly a poor script caused them to cancel the project shortly before shooting was to begin. Fifty years later, a Gibson Girl did, have the distinction of gracing a 1995 postage stamp (right) and Gibson himself is said to have "invented" a martini which came to bear his name (gin, vermouth, and a pickled onion garnish).


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