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Charles Gibson

 (1867 - 1944)
Charles Dana Gibson was active/lived in New York, Maine, Massachusetts.  Charles Gibson is known for magazine illustration-female figure.

Charles Gibson

    GIB-sun    click to hear

Biography from the Archives of askART

In 1886, a nineteen-year-old artist, portfolio in hand, was seen sneaking his way up the back stairs to the New York City offices of the young humor magazine, LIFE. A tall, handsome youth, he hardly looked like the type that needed to sneak his way around anywhere.  But he'd spent the entire year making the rounds of every magazine in New York and their unanimous rejection of his work had chipped away at his self-confidence.  He had decided that this was it if LIFE didn't buy something, there would be one less artist struggling to sell his work.

Among the drawings in the portfolio was a sketch of a dog baying at the moon, with the legend beneath, "The Moon and I."  It was a spoof on the ballad of the same name from The Mikado, Gilbert and Sullivan's popular musical.  The drawing was mediocre, the technique less than masterful, but it was a funny idea, and the editor thought he saw something promising there.  And so, like the proverbial happy ending, he bought it, and Charles Dana Gibson was saved from obscurity.

Gibson's name became synonymous with the nineties, for it was he who fashioned for them a whole new standard for romantic love and resurrected chivalry, creating something that actually became a part of the real world he lived in.  In doing so, he gave the world that elusive creature aloof but tender, naughty but adorable, and always, always beautiful the Gibson Girl.

Gibson was born in Roxbury, Massachusetts on September 14, 1867.  He came from an old New England family which included artists, merchants, and seamen. His interest in art showed itself early.  Charles's father often cut silhouette figures to amuse his son and it was not along before the boy began to create his own pictures. By the time he was 14, his skill with the scissors had become local legend, and he obtained an apprenticeship with Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the sculptor.  Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that three-dimensional art was not Gibson's forte.  Happily, lack of success with sculpture led to experimentation with pen and pencil.

After graduation, and knowing that his family had no money for his college education, Gibson enrolled in the then relatively new and inexpensive Art Students League.  Persistence paid off and he gained the confidence to continue trying after selling to LIFE magazine.

When assignments began to come, he took the opportunity to study in Paris, and the improvement in his drawing was readily apparent.  Later in life, at the peak of his career, he again visited Europe and again returned with improvement in technique.

Gibson was not particularly political, and did not often portray political situations in his cartoons; his forte was the "social set" and "high society" at which he continually poked fun.

His greatest period of popularity lasted until 1910, although he continued to be prolific during the first world war and the early 1920s.

Gibson's line and technique are still studied by serious illustrators.  His bold lines and use of contrast allowed him to "paint" pictures with no more than white paper and black ink. Character, tone and humor are reflected in a style that was often emulated by the popular artists of his day.

The ability to produce original pen and ink work was a new technique in the 1880s when Gibson first arrived on the scene.  Up to that time, line artists produced the drawings which were then cut into wood or metal by engravers. Eliminating the "middle man" gave the artist a greater control and enhanced his or her ability to communicate with the reader.

Michael Taylor, October 2003

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 Cond√© 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 the founding of 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,

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About  Charles Gibson

Born:  1867 - Roxbury, Massachusetts
Died:   1944 - New York City
Known for:  magazine illustration-female figure

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Charles Gibson