Charles Dana Gibson, inventor of the "Gibson Girl"
Born in 1867 in Roxbury, Massachusetts, his father was an amateur artist whose assistance and encouragement of his son led him to begin exhibiting his work by the age of twelve. Eventually his parents saved enough money to send him to the prestigious Art School of Manhattan, where was taught by Thomas Eakins and sat in class alongside Frederic Remington. Gibson's skill was primarily in the silhouette, but he took well enough to the more serious artistic endeavors put before him at the school.
Unfortunately the generosity of his parents was insufficient and he was forced to go into labor at the age of 18 before completing his education. He pounded the cement of New York liberally every day, selling whatever artwork he could to the local magazines and newspapers. Eventually one of his works caught the eye of John Ames Mitchell, then-editor at Life magazine, who hired him as a cartoonist for the fledgling publication.
Before long, the enterprising Gibson had a studio and was churning out work for Harper's Monthly, Bazaar, and The Century in addition to Life. A trip to France led him to George du Maurier, who had recently gained some notoriety for drawing elaborate recreations of famed society women's ballgowns. Upon his return he set out to do the same, and 1890 saw the birth of his most famous creation, the "Gibson Girl."
While most people know the Girl from her iconic couiffeure and turn-of-the-century fashion, Gibson used the Girl as more of a means to an end, often weaving her into tiny vignettes of everyday life, occasionally even presenting her as the protagonist of a long series of shorts (and in "Mr. Pipp's Education" he made the Girl the star of her own novel.)
The Gibson Girl's success was on par with that of Mickey Mouse or Star Wars today. Naturally, lithographs and framed art of her became ubiquitous from coast to coast. But she also found her way onto fine china, burned into woodwork, printed on wallpaper, handbills, and umbrella stands. She became the subject of numerous songs, a dozen plays, and several movies in an era when motion pictures were the rarest of commodities.
Gibson himself benefited greatly from his creation. Firstly, it made him independently wealthy. In 1892 he was named New York's most eligible bachelor, and in 1895 he married the wealthy Irene Langthorne (who eventually became Gibson's chief model for the Gibson girl.) Gibson was offered the unheard of sum of $100,000 to work exclusively for Collier's, but he instead kept his post at Life, continuing to churn out Gibson Girl art well into the 1910s.
It is important to note that while the Gibson Girl was his most popular creation (along with her male counterpart, the ever-humbled Gibson Man), Gibson was and remains one of the most popular American artists from the turn of the century. Many of his exhibition paintings and drawings fetch top dollar on the market, and his unique and masterful line-drawing style is viewed appreciably by art collectors even today. He is, in short, no one-hit wonder.
With World War I came the death of Gibson's long-time friend and mentor Mitchell, and Gibson himself became chief editor of Life magazine (he bought the magazine 6 months later.) He used his new position to head a committee of artists which produced the bulk of the World War I propaganda art supporting the army and the President. At the same time, the Gibson Girl entered a decline in popularity, replaced by the flapper girl and the rising stars of Hollywood like Clara Bow and Mary Pickford. This was just as well for Gibson; he retired from his editorship in 1931 and proceeded to pick up his old art-school ways, painting exquisite oils and portraits for friends.
Gibson's work is often defined by the rich emotional tenor captured in the eyes of his Girls and the tall, often strong-willed postures adopted by his Girls, never slouching or submissive. Many view his works as a subtle support of women's suffrage and feminism in general - the Gibson Girl became a prominent symbol for courage and self-assuredness during the turbulent suffrage years surrounding her popularity.
Gibson died in 1944 at the age of 77.
Gibson was a trendsetter in other ways. In 1897 he published a cartoon in Life entitled "Gibson Boys?" which featured several athletic men modeling for each other in women's dresses. The caption: "Why not?"
Gibson is often falsely attributed with the creation of the Gibson cocktail (a martini with an onion rather than olive.) In fact, it was one Walter Gibson from San Francisco who created the drink; one suspects it was simply the popularity of the Gibson girls which helped confuse the facts.