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CHARLES DANA GIBSON
DELINEATOR OF AN AGE
Henry C. Pitz
THE effect of an artist upon his contemporaries is usually a subterranean and elusive thing, seldom plain to all eyes. And seldom does such a force touch more than a fraction of its potential audience. When it reaches up and down through social layers and commands imitation, when it influences the habits, demeanor and external appearance of large numbers and leaves its imprint on two decades of bustling life, it acquires the nature of a pictorial marvel. It becomes an important page in social history, a revealing portrait of an age, a fascinating treasury of mass psychology. And that all this should come out of an ink bottle!
Behind the ink bottle was a man, of course—a dedicated, hard-working artist of conspicuous talent who in his younger days could never have suspected the power hidden in a dashing pen technique. No one could have been more astonished than Charles Dana Gibson himself to witness his art in the process of shaping life, to watch a large portion of the American populace trying to conform to the people in his pictures.
Mimicry on a national scale is not a new feature in American life. The strong persuasions exerted today by the motion picture, theater and television were once wielded by the illustrator. But such widespread power over a period of about two decades can seldom be traced back to a single personality. Gibson became America's conspicuous example of an artist intuitively absorbing the yearnings of his time and crystallizing them into captivating pictorial images. There was a time when his pictures were known in practically every home in the land. The latest copies of the comic magazine Life were opened first to the Gibson pages. The large horizontal Gibson albums, packed with his pictures, were on countless parlor tables, and on the walls were large-size reproductions of his most beloved subjects. Gibson reproductions crept from the printed page onto all kinds of likely and unlikely surfaces: china plates and saucers, tiles, souvenir spoons, tablecloths, pillow covers, chair covers, ashtrays, matchboxes, screens, fans and umbrella stands. A pet hobby of the time, pyrography, encouraged thousands to scorch Gibson types onto acres of leather strips and wooden panels. There was a Gibson wallpaper designed for bachelors' rooms, and his drawings of girls' heads were traced onto handkerchiefs and embroidered.
All these are the amusing and fascinating artifacts of a vanished age which has begun to arouse our curiosity, and they are becoming collector's items. But it is well to remember that the Gibson craze was recorded not merely in the form of a heterogeneous collection of odd objects but in the acts and impulses of living people. The phenomenon of a large portion of a great nation following the persuasions of an ink line is not to be summed up in an amused and indulgent smile; it is a matter for some pages from the social historian, who is all too prone to ignore the historical importance of pictorial documentation.
The creator of that vitalizing ink line was a modest and thoroughly honest man who used his talent to express his most earnest convictions. His outer appearance—Gibson was tall, distinguished and urbane—was reflected in his pictures. His inner life, direct and uncomplicated, was in them, too. He was not a consciously deep prober, but many of the surface features to which he was sensitive had deep and mysterious roots. He had a lot to reveal about the character of his era and had more than a little to do with the shaping of it.
Gibson's life was not the tangle of rebellions and frustrations that has come to be associated with artists. He had his share of griefs and misfortunes, which he met with simple courage and acceptance. Gibson was born on September 14, 1867, into a happy family of very modest means. His father was Charles DeWolf Gibson, a Civil War lieutenant, his mother Josephine Elizabeth Lovett, a lively, spontaneous and warmhearted young woman. Both had behind them an almost unbroken chain of New England ancestors, stretching back to the early settlers. Young Charles had an older brother and three younger sisters. He grew up in an atmosphere of affection and encouragement.
If we make the usual search for ancestral talent, we find a great-grandfather who was a painter of miniatures in Boston; Charles Dana's own father also drew in an amusing, amateur way. The boy showed his inclinations early. His first instrument was neither pencil nor brush but scissors. From the time of an early illness during which his father amused him by cutting some animal shapes from paper scraps, young Gibson developed an uncanny knack for scissoring delightful and expressive shapes from paper, a wide range of human figures, birds, fish, quadrupeds, trees and other natural forms. These were not mere clumsy, childish efforts; they were adroit, humorous and charming, and showed an innate appreciation of silhouette shapes (Figure 1). When, at the age of thirteen, Gibson was taken to display his cut-out skill before the noted architect George B. Post and the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, his deftness and spontaneous design impressed them.
When Charles was of high-school age, the family was living in Flushing, Long Island, and the boy's talent was so apparent that he took the entrance examination for admittance to the Art Students League and passed it. At the time the League was one of the best art schools in the country, with a faculty that included Thomas Eakins, William Sartain, Kenyon Cox, William Merritt Chase, Walter Shirlaw, Edwin Blashfield and J. Alden Weir, among others. Gibson spent two hard-working years in this stimulating atmosphere. Talk at the school was largely of the growing reputations of so many of its recent graduates in the fields of painting and illustration. Most students were laboring to build up portfolios of impressive samples and preparing to confront the strange world of the gallery owner, the art editor and the publisher.
Young Gibson's hopes and almost empty pocketbook drove him in the same direction, but his ambition was ahead of his accomplishment. His drawings were labored and unprofessional, and he received little encouragement from the editors. However, he was tenacious and determined. He quit art school, lived at home and struggled to improve his drawing. At last, in the winter of 1886 he sold a small drawing to the newly established, spirited magazine Life for four dollars (Figure 2). This was the most modest beginning of what was to become a lifelong association. Small as it was it cheered him on. He began to pick up other small commissions, and when, some months later, he sold a second drawing to Life he felt he was on the border of professionalism. There was a noticeable improvement in his work, and presently he took the plunge of opening a studio in New York. Gradually he was making his way.
The pen began to fascinate him more and more. Every month he studied in the pages of the magazines the drawings of the brilliant company of American artists that was making American illustration noted throughout the world. Edwin Austin Abbey was one of his early idols, along with Arthur B. Frost, Howard Pyle, E. W. Kemble, W. T. Smedley, C. S. Reinhart, Palmer Cox and Albert Sterner. Frederic Remington, a fellow student at the League, was beginning to attract attention. The dean of American illustrators, Felix Octavius Darley, active to the end, died in 1888, the year in which young Gibson began to feel established.
The close study of other artists' work greatly helped Gibson's own, and when he enlarged his awareness to include many European artists, he was able to educate himself in the best graphic art of the day. He came to know the work of the two founding fathers of modern pen technique, the Paris-centered Spaniard Daniel Vierge and the German Adolf Menzel. The British school appealed to him particularly and he collected clippings of the work of George Cruikshank, John Leech and Charles Keene and the early illustrative work of the Pre-Raphaelites. He had a special admiration for George Du Maurier, whose figures had an elegance and upper-class suavity which in a short time Gibson was able to translate into his own—American—terms.
Meanwhile, Gibson's technique was becoming broader and more flexible (Figure 3) and was moving rapidly toward the electrifying verve of his mature years. The times were ripe for it. Not only was Gibson able to profit by the brilliant examples of his predecessors, but he came along at the precise moment when the illustrator was being freed from his bondage to the wood engraver. The newer process of photomechanical engraving was now producing dependable facsimiles of pen drawings. No longer were there the anxious doubts about what the wood engraver would do to an original drawing; the photoengraving could capture swing and dash and a rollicking line. Gibson became interested in the work of the English draftsman Phil May, who had developed a very economical pen style, striving for a technique that expressed his ideas in the fewest possible lines. Gibson learned to use a longer stroke, working from the shoulder and elbow rather than merely from the wrist. But he was not satisfied with May's constant reliance upon outline and his spare use of modeling and dark tonalities. Gibson indulged his own need for rich darks and full-bodied expression, and soon moved into a scintillating technique that was unique in the world of pen and ink.
The world fell in love with that galvanizing technique. Gibson was acclaimed by fellow artist and layman alike, in both America and Europe. Soon he was the most imitated artist of his time. There were battalions of hopeful Charles Dana Gibsons, most of them mediocre or worse. A few, like Howard Chandler Christy and James Montgomery Flagg, fed upon the Gibson technique, but contributed something of their own to the style. Many other competent pen artists felt the Gibson persuasion, but incorporated it into their own independent expressions.
Gibson created many appealing types, but towering above all were the "Gibson Girl" and the "Gibson Man," particularly the former. These two types were a handsome, youthful pair, incredibly competent and assured. They could smile, but seldom laughed. They moved through a world that did not seem too demanding. Courteous, secure and serene, they had an Anglo-Saxon attractiveness which seemed to conquer all possible problems. They wore their fashionable clothes with unselfconsciousness distinction; their gestures were patrician. Yet they did not seem remote—not too remote. For a rapidly expanding middle class, busily climbing up the social ladder, here was a model of what they could hope to reach. A gifted artist, instinctively in tune with his time, was presenting the panorama of an American dream which he, too, believed in with all his heart.
The followers of that dream numbered millions. The younger women, in particular, tried to model their clothes, their gestures, their hair and features on the Gibson specifications. His pictures carried a message of hope, a tantalizing reach for a superior life. It was a dream that could not last, at least in that form. It was dissipated by the explosion of World War I.
Gibson threw all his pictorial energy into patriotic propaganda, but at the end of those four long years the world was a different place. His special world had vanished. His skill remained but he could not read the secrets of a disillusioned era. He continued to illustrate, then took on the burdens of editing Life, and in his later years retired to his island home in Penobscot Bay and painted—and painted well. But his touch with a vast audience was gone.
We can now see his pictures as part of our inheritance. They are honest pictures. The man himself is in them with his integrity, his lovable dignity and his warmhearted optimism. His time is in them, too. We can leaf through the pages of his albums and gain a more immediate understanding of that gilded age than could be derived from volumes of text.
HENRY C. PITZ
Plymouth Meeting, Pa. August 1968
Excerpted from The Gibson Girl and Her America by Charles Dana Gibson. Copyright © 2010 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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