Media File
Charles Dana Gibson
Date: American illustrator and painter, 1867–1944
Biography: Charles Dana Gibson (1867-1944) was raised in Roxbury, MA, in an affluent family. At fourteen, he became an apprentice to sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. After some months, he decided to take up pen and ink drawing. He then enrolled for two years at the Art Students League in New York City; his teachers included Thomas Eakins and Kenyon Cox. In 1885, a change in the family’s financial status caused him to leave school at eighteen. He made his first commercial sale in 1886 to the newly-founded Life, a general-interest magazine that also featured humor and cartoons. His art would appear there for over 30 years. His early work proved extremely popular, leading to book and magazine illustration commissions from Scribner’s, Harper’s, and Century. He excelled at and became especially recognized for his high-society characters; he adeptly portrayed their self-absorption and vacuous pursuits. Throughout the 1890s, his "Gibson Girl" made him nationally famous. Modeled on his wife, the wealthy Virginia heiress Irene Langhorne, this "New Woman" was admired as the ideal American woman in appearance and personality. The Gibson Girl was a malleable icon, variously depicted as a professional worker, an athlete, a student, an activist, or a hostess. With her statuesque hourglass figure and copious hair artfully arranged, she toyed with men in thrall to her beauty and poise. In 1910, Gibson gave an interview to the New York Times in which he claimed that the American woman was unique, and superior to women of other nationalities because of “natural selection.” His statement was a manifestation of the Social Darwinism movement current of the time. For over two decades, various models sat for Gibson Girl drawings, including Evelyn Nesbit. Numerous commercial products were developed around the Gibson Girl image. World War I altered the national taste, and the Gibson Girl declined in popularity.

Another aspect of Gibson’s career involved propaganda posters for the US during World War I. In 1917, George Creel, the chair of the federal government’s newly-formed Division of Pictorial Publicity, asked Gibson to participate in the war-effort poster and billoard campaign and to encourage other illustrators to do the same. These artists brought the visual strategies of advertising – striking graphics and emotive content – to the proejct. During the war years, Gibson was also the acting president of the Society of Illustrators (NY).

From 1905 to 1907, Gibson studied in Europe. In 1904, he had entered into a sharing agreement with Collier’s Weekly, which paid him $100,000 for one hundred illustrations over four years. In 1918, became editor of Life and, in 1920, one of its owners until 1932. Also in 1918, he was elected as an Associate in the National Academy of Design; he became an Academician in 1932. In his later years, he devoted himself to painting. For some years, Gibson lived in the artists’ and illustrators’ colony of New Rochelle, NY. He also owned a 700-acre island near Islesboro, Maine.

Gibson died in New York City.

Edward, Marshall, “The Gibson Girl Analyzed by her Originator”, The New York Times (Nov. 20, 1910) [and bibliography]