Sunday, March 11, 2007

Life Drawing Sunday 23: Charles Dana Gibson

Charles Dana Gibson made the first sale of his career to Life in 1886, at the age of eighteen. He was paid four dollars. He went home that night and cranked out five more drawings, thinking they would bring him a full twenty bucks. He brought them in to Life the next morning, and had them quickly handed back to him along with " a reflection upon the workmanship they displayed which
June 23, 1887.
sent Gibson's castle in the air to the ground."1. Gibson revised his strategy a bit, figuring that producing fewer, better drawings would earn him more than a lot of lousy ones would. By the following year he was selling to Life regularly - he appears in a lot of the issues of 1887 - and to other magazines. The drawings are unimpressive, but not much worse than a lot what Life was publishing at the time and better than some others. John Ames Mitchell, Life's founder, publisher and art editor wrote later that he saw "beneath the outer badness of these drawings, peculiarities rarely discovered in the efforts of a beginner. ...His faults were good, able-bodied faults that held their heads up and looked you in the eye. No dodgings of the difficult points, no tricks, no uncertainty, no slurring of outlines. To be sure his ladies, in consequence, were often clad in boiler iron and although he and the Almighty, at that time, were holding different views as to the effects of light and shade, there was always courage and honesty in whatever he undertook."2
July 7, 1887

It was probably safe to assume that Gibson would overcome his "able-bodied faults" and become a decent artist, but it's unlikely anyone could have looked at his early efforts and foreseen the sudden explosion of talent he would display early in the next decade.
February 3, 1887


May 9, 1895



Gibson had earned enough to travel to Europe in 1889. In London he visited George DuMaurier, whose drawings for Punch had been an obvious influence and in Paris he spent a few months and the remainder of his funds studying at the Académie Julian. He returned to New York with, Susan E. Meyer wrote, "a vigorous new style, more daring and assertive, demonstrating a flair and dash that would forever be associated with his pen-and-ink drawings."3

February 13, 1890


March 10, 1892


June 22, 1893


June 22, 1893


March 15, 1894


January 24, 1895




July 18, 1895


October 17, 1895


January 9, 1896


February 6, 1896



April 16, 1896



The Los Angeles Times, August 16, 1895.
Gibson's greatly improved observational skills as both an artist and a humorist, along with a unique insider's perspective on New York society life, established him as an eminent social commentator of his time.He was a "trend-breaker and trend-setter"4; his pen line was being imitated everywhere, even in Life's own pages, and when "[h]is vision of the handsome male happened to be of a clean-shaven, athletic type... largely because of his imagery, Victorian chin-whiskers and sideburns disappeared."5 And his women, collectively touted by Life as The Gibson Girl, became a cultural ideal and a commercial sensation. The fortunes of both Gibson and the magazine greatly increased.

Whatever other post-Victorian values the Gibson Girl was supposed to embody, she remained focussed on the topic of marriage or, at least, marriage proposals. Gibson seemed to believe in an ideal romantic love, with Cupids yet, that was rarely realized in his cartoons. His Girl is frequently shown fending off, nastily at times, the attentions of all sorts of pathetic schmoes who made the mistake of thinking they were worthy of her.
May 8, 1902

January 2, 1896

May 15, 1902


If she was pleased with her suitor, then there were money issues or Daddy issues. If she did marry, then love would die and Cupid would be sad.
"Love {Will?] Die
March 1, 18946

"When He Once Goes Out, it is Hard to Get Him Back"
April 19, 18947

March 25, 1896

Marriage generally wasn't pretty: behind meek men, like his character Mr. Pipp, there was a domineering, social climbing wife.

March 5, 1903

January 16, 1902

March 13, 1902
October 5, 1899

Marriages were arranged for money or, worse, families "sacrificed" their daughters to not-necessarily-solvent European nobility so that they would have a title.
June 5, 1902


March 19, 1896



October 5, 1899


The first of fourteen "table-books" collecting Gibson's drawings was published in 1894. "All this fanfare over Gibson's work," Susan E. Meyer wrote, "represented a major turning point in publishing history. Never before had an illustrator so influenced American business; never before had so much money been earned from the creations of a single artist."8 The books, priced at $5.00 on the low end, and up to $25 for deluxe editions, sold as many as 20, 000 copies.


Gibson kept his attention on the upper class world he knew until the beginning of World War I, when he dedicated himself to first getting America involved in the war, and then to the war effort itself. (But that's another post.) There were few cartoons that featured working people, unless they were domestic servants, and none that I've ever seen that indulged in ethnic humor. Given the tone that these types of drawings in Life usually took, this is probably a good thing.
January 23, 1902

Gibson once said to a "newspaper woman", Nixola [!] Greely-Smith, in an interview, "But you said awhile ago that I had never drawn a business or professional woman. You accused me of preferring what you termed the aristocratic type. But what do you call an aristocrat? There are probably more aristocrats among the girls who work for a living than in any other class. People confound aristocracy with money. Families that have had money for two or three generations expect to equal those that have education and gentle training for centuries. It's impossible. A family that's had time to decay financially so that its women have to work for a living is certainly older than one in the flower of financial prosperity." 9 Clearly, Gibson was no hack at the art of dodging a question, either.

There's plenty here for social historians to kick around, but it's the drawings that matter. Again, Susan E. Meyer sums up his work best:
He wielded the pen with uncanny facility, accomplishing unimaginable feats in black and white. The delicacy of his penwork was never obliterated by his swift and daring strokes and he managed to convey, with great economy, even the most complex subjects with only a few parallel lines deftly placed. Over the years his work became increasingly ambitious, yet surprisingly more relaxed as he frequently indicated subtle changes in value (a difficult feat in pen and ink), created outrageous compositions that managed to succeed in spite of all the rules he had broken on the way. Effortlessly, he could suggest the transparency of water, the mellow play of candlelight, the fading contours created by a distant fog. Without question, no American artist before or since Charles Dana Gibson could wield the pen as skillfully.10`





January 2, 1902



February 13, 1902



February 20, 1902



March 20, 1902



April 24, 1902



May 29, 1902



December 15, 1904




Unlinked sources and notes
1. "Gibson's Early Work. His Extravagant Ideas Tempered by the Rejection of a Number of Drawings",Los Angeles Times, October 20, 1908.
2, 3, 8, 10. Susan E. Meyer,America's Great Illustrators, Abrams, 1978.
4, 5. "Penman of the Past. Charles Dana Gibson" by Rick Marschall, Nemo #11, Fantagraphics, May, 1985.
6,7. Sorry for the crappy scans. These are from a bound volume, so the center is lost, but they're too nutty not to include.
9. "Working Girls Aristocrats", Los Angeles Times, May 26, 1908.

4 comments:

magdan said...

Thanks for sharing all these beautiful illustrations!

carolita said...

Great research! Thank you!

FB said...

Thax for sharing these illustrations :)

English Book said...

Amazing illustrations.Thanks for sharing :)