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Charles Dana Gibson

creator of one of the most popular icons of the early 1900's

Charles Dana Gibson

Charles Dana Gibson was born into a well-to-do family in Roxbury, Massachusetts, on September 14, 1867. His father was a Civil War veteran who dabbled in art; his mother loved and encouraged all five of her children. Interested in art from an early age, Charles learned how to make silhouettes of people, animals, and trees while recovering from a childhood illness, from his father. He soon became so proficient that, when he was 12, his parents entered his work in an exhibition.

At 14, after receiving his basic education from the local schools, Gibson was apprenticed to sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, but he decided he preferred pen and ink over sculpture and left after about a year. His parents then sent him to the Art Students' League in New York City, where his instructors included Thomas Eakins and William Merritt Chase, and one of his classmates was Frederic Remington. In 1885, an unexpected financial hardship with his family forced Gibson to leave the school and start his career. After about a year of trying to get a "regular job," he got his big break from Life, a new magazine hoping to compete with such established magazines as Puck and Judge. His first cartoon -- a small drawing of a dog chained to his doghouse, baying at the moon -- was published in the March 25, 1886 issue of Life, beginning a near-lifelong association.

Gibson received $4 for his first published cartoon, but as his skill improved and the popularity of his work increased his salary from Life increased, and within three months he went from earning $33 to $185 a month. Specializing in cartoons that poked fun at high society characters and their idiosyncracies without being outright parodies, Gibson helped Life magazine become one of the most popular magazines in the country. By 1889 he had earned enough money to travel and study in England and France, and by 1890 he was selling illustrations and cartoons to every major publication in New York. Although he constantly received offers from national publications to work exclusively for them (often with promises of tremendous salaries), he refused to give up his relationship with Life, the magazine that had started his career.

"The Gibson Girl," a tall, athletic, beautiful, and well-bred young woman, made her first appearance in 1890, and was the subject of Gibson's first full independent portfolio in 1894. Gibson's vision of the idealized woman of the turn-of-the-century quickly became one of the most popular icons of the day, and she was soon being reproduced on dishes, pillows, shoes, dressing-table sets, folio books, shirtwaists, and even wallpaper; there were even plays, songs, and a movie based on her. Gibson also created a "Gibson Man," the ideal male complement to the "Gibson Girl." Over the years, dozens of women passed through Gibson's studio to pose for "Gibson Girl portraits," and by 1905 he was earning $75,000 a year, a very hefty sum for any profession in those days, and an extremely good living for an artist.

a 'Gibson Girl'

In 1917, after forming the Society of Illustrators, Gibson got a group of illustrators to pledge their support for the war effort. The group established itself as The Division of Pictorial Publicity in the U.S. Office of Public Information, with Gibson as its head, and published illustrations and cartoons in major publications encouraging Americans to support their soldiers and Allied victory.

By the time World War I ended, the "Gibson Girl" had been replaced by John Held's "Flapper Girl" and Life's readership was beginning to decline. In 1920, Gibson headed a syndicate of illustrators, writers, and staff members and bought Life at auction, with Gibson having the controlling shares. Gibson retained control of Life until selling it in 1932, after which he took up oil painting and ventured into portraits. Although his fellow artists said that Gibson's paintings equalled his pen-and-ink creations in quality, they were never quite as popular with the public.

In the fall of 1944, Charles Dana Gibson suffered a heart attack at his home off the coast of Maine. Upon hearing of Gibson's condition, President Franklin D. Roosevelt dispatched a seaplane to fly him to New York City, where he died on December 23, 1944.


National Museum of American Illustration

See Also

Civil War
Augustus Saint-Gaudens
World War I
President Franklin D. Roosevelt

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The Robinson Library >> History of Drawing

This page was last updated on 09/14/2018.