Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,353

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,353


This is the grave of Charles Dana Gibson.

Born in 1867 in Roxbury, Massachusetts, Gibson came from old money Boston elite, with multiple ancestors who were in the Senate. But politics was definitely not the game of this young man. He was into art, especially drawing. His parents sent him to the Art Students League in New York. If he was going to draw, might as well do it the best he could.

It did not take Gibson long to make his mark. He started selling his pen and ink drawings to magazines in 1886, working primarily with the new publication Life, which I did not know had started in the 1880s. It seems so iconic to the mid twentieth century to me that I guess I had just never thought about it. When you study the Progressive Era, for instance, Life is definitely not the publication that gets talked about by historians. Well, anyway, no matter, this would be Gibson’s primary home for the next three decades, although he sold elsewhere too. Gibson’s first drawing, which he sold for $4, was a picture of a dog outside howling at the moon.

What made Gibson so well-known was the so-called Gibson Girl, the modern woman of the turn of the century that he represented in his drawings. Now, it seems that the market for this does predate Gibson a bit, but he is the one who made this kind of drawing popular. Often using his glamorous wife or her sisters as models, he drew young women with at least some means (the ability to go to the beach for instance) in leisure. She was the model of fashion at this time. She was tall and well-dressed. She tended to have large breasts but was well-covered and acceptable for mom and dad. She was perpetually young and had a body shaped by a corset. She exercised and was interested in other forms of physical activity. She might attend college, but would never be seen with those weirdos at a suffrage rally. In other words, this was an idealized male form that became awfully influential with women too. This wasn’t quite the New Woman, but one could start thinking of life as a Gibson Girl and then maybe move toward New Woman politics, such as suffrage.

For Gibson, this idealized woman was very straight-forward what he found attractive in women. He claimed that he was really just reporting what he saw on the streets and in the theaters and restaurants, but of course that’s a very selective interpretation of what he saw, since he naturally saw lots of other women as well. He wasn’t sitting around promoting Jewish immigrant women as ideals of beauty, as an example. Gibson also had a weird eugenic mission here. He thought that the mixing of races in America would breed out the unfortunate traits (whatever those were) and promote an ever more beautiful woman. For example, he wrote:

They are beyond question the loveliest of all their sex … In the United States, of course, where natural selection has been going on, as elsewhere, and where, much more than elsewhere, that has been a great variety to choose from. The eventual American woman will be even more beautiful than the woman of to-day. Her claims to that distinction will result from a fine combination of the best points of all those many races which have helped make our population.

Of course, as the Gibson Girl became a type, many other artists began drawing their versions and many different women provided the models. Gibson had created an archetype.

Gibson also frequently got hired to provide drawings for fiction, which is not so common today, but was then. One of the most famous books that he drew was 1898 version The Prisoner of Zenda, originally published a few years earlier by Anthony Hope and which I primarily know from the iconic 1937 film adaptation with Ronald Colman and David Niven.

Gibson also published his own books of drawings, which seem to have sold quite well. They include Pictures of People, from 1896, and The Social Ladder, from 1902. He did a best of compilation work as well that he published in 1906.

The Gibson Girl remained popular until World War I, when fashion began transitioning quite rapidly, with a lot of older styles (shirtwaists and corsets for example) becoming seen as old-fashioned and the flapper era moving in with the rapidity of a German machine gun. But Gibson himself just transitioned to a new phase of his career. Life founder John Ames Mitchell died in 1918 and the board hired Gibson to become the new editor of the magazine. He started painting with oil at this time, but was never more than a minor operator with this form. He also had another mission during these World War I days–propaganda. Gibson was a big supporter of the U.S. entering the war. He was already involved with editorial content well before he actually became editor and the magazine pushed editorial after editorial on entering the war. Gibson provided the needed visual propaganda by drawing the Kaiser as a blood-crazed madman. He also liked to draw the Kaiser shooting Red Cross nurses. He was a not a subtle man here.

In 1921, Gibson sold Life. He didn’t much care for the new America that he had helped create. The nation was more sexual. Humor became more ribald. Gibson wouldn’t go down that road. So Life subscriptions declined. After 1921, he moved to his property in Maine and just ignored the world for the rest of his life. He lived in the art colony of New Rochelle, New York as well for part of the time.

Also, supposedly the Gibson cocktail, which is a martini but with an onion instead of an olive, is named after Gibson. Solid drink, good call my friend. And yes, this can only have gin and vermouth. Vodka? Different drink, No vermouth? Just GTFO. Learn to drink.

Gibson died in 1944 of a bad heart. He was 77 years old.

Charles Dana Gibson is buried in Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit some of the women who were seen as idealized Gibson Girls over the years, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Mabel Normand is in Los Angeles and Florence Lawrence is in Hollywood. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

One assumes we are drinking Gibsons tonight.

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