Charles Dana Gibson (1867 – 1944) was interested in art as a boy while watching his father cut silhouettes; he was born into a wealthy New England family from Roxbury, then a suburb of Boston. An enterprising lad, he started cutting silhouettes himself at eight, and by the time he was twelve, he was selling them at exhibitions.
At fourteen years of age, through family connections, Charles was apprenticed to sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the Cornish Colony friend of Maxfield Parrish. After nearly a year in the Saint-Gaudens studio, he determined that sculpture was not his main interest and he took up pen and ink.
His parents, recognizing artistic talent, enrolled him in the Art Students League.
In 1885, due to an unforeseen family financial hardship, he left school at just eighteen to start his career.
After trying unsuccessfully to get a job, he happened on Life, a new magazine competing with already well-established competitors, Puck and Judge.
From the start, Gibson’s interests were in portraying the social set rather than political figures, and his audience enjoyed the manner in which he poked fun at high society characters with their idiosyncrasies.
His monthly salary started at $33, rising each month to $185 in the third month. His value to Life was clearly tangible to both publisher and illustrator from the first drawing, for his work caused circulation to increase.
At the same time, he also sold his illustrations to Tid-Bits, later re-named Time magazine.
By 1890, Gibson was illustrating articles for Scribner’s, Century, and Harper’s.
In 1890, he started drawing ‘The Gibson Girl’ and later featured her in his first full independent portfolio in 1894. Undoubtedly, Irene Langhorne Gibson, his wife, was the model for ‘The Gibson Girl’, and her granddaughter looks just like her.
There have been other theories to the contrary but they are highly unlikely.
In 1904, Robert Collier and Condé Nast tried to sign Gibson to their magazine team at Collier’s Weekly, just as they had done with Pyle, Remington and Parrish. Gibson refused due to his loyalty to Life, but they compromised and agreed to a sharing relationship with Life, with a contract of $100,000 for 100 illustrations over a four-year period.
In 1905, Gibson yearned to give up his pen and ink drawings to emulate other artists whom he respected most by using oil paints like Abbey, Frost, Remington, and Parrish. At the height of his career, it was too expensive for him to stop working, for his annual salary had reached $75,000. Charles Dana Gibson’s period of greatest popularity was between 1900 and 1910, although he was productive well into the 1920’s.
His best-known subject was the proverbial ‘Gibson Girl’. She became known as an ideal image of youthful American femininity, the modern woman: athletic, smart, stylish, and desirable, and she sold magazines. In fact, whole fashion lines were started when Gibson placed a ribbon on her forehead or a certain style dress on her tall statuesque figure.
While the nation was craving its own styles of architecture and searching for an American identity on the world scene, it also searched for idealizations in art. ‘The Gibson Girl’ satisfied that need by captivating the imagination of the country and by providing a perfect image of femininity, uniquely American.
In 1917, after forming the Society of Illustrators, Gibson convened a group of illustrators pledging their efforts to win the war including Flagg, Leyendecker, Christy, and others. They set up as The Division of Pictorial Publicity in the US Office of Public Information with Gibson as head. Later, Gibson took the defeat of the Germans as an important quest to save Western Civilization.
After the war he continued to illustrate, but the public was now interested in flappers, jazz music, fast cars and booze; ‘The Gibson Girl’ was no longer de rigueur.
In 1920, Gibson headed a syndicate of illustrators, writers, and staff members and bought Life magazine at auction with Gibson having the controlling shares. New competition from the New Yorker, Fortune and Time all pressured Life, and it slumped further into near demise when Gibson sold it in 1932.
At the retirement age of 65, he obligingly retired from Life, and finally took up oil painting and ventured into portraits.
The American Academy of Arts and Letters exhibited his paintings and a New York Times critic exclaimed, “Make no mistake about it, Charles Dana Gibson is a painter.” The public had long assumed that pen and ink were his only tools, but they soon forgot him, his technique, and ‘The Gibson Girl.’
In the fall of 1944, Charles Dana Gibson suffered a heart attack on his island off the coast of Maine.
By request of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Gibson was flown via Navy seaplane to New York, where he died a few weeks later.
Source: National Museum of American Illustration