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.
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
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.
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.
March 1, 18946
April 19, 18947
Marriage generally wasn't pretty: behind meek men, like his character Mr. Pipp, there was a domineering, social climbing wife.
Marriages were arranged for money or, worse, families "sacrificed" their daughters to not-necessarily-solvent European nobility so that they would have a title.
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.
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`
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.