Charles Dana Gibson was an illustrator whose depiction of women came to represent the archetype of a beautiful American woman at the turn of the last century. She was dubbed the Gibson Girl. A Google Image Search for the term will show you several examples.
In this article, the artist reluctantly answers questions about the Gibson Girl at the insistence of the reporter, and explains that to him, the “Gibson Girl” does not really exist. Rather, there are just beautiful girls who exist as a product of evolution and the melting pot of races in America:
“Will you make a head for me?” I asked. “A Gibson Girl’s head, please!”
He tried it, but in a moment stopped work on it.
“I give up,” said he. “I never could work that way. I always am astounded, and perhaps a little envious, when I see chaps, at a dinner, for example, scratching pretty heads off on menu cards while they are talking. I can’t do it. I must work carefully and slowly and from models.”
“Then the stories of the models,” I said eagerly, “the models for the Gibson girl, are–“
He sighed wearily. “Please don’t,” he said. “The ‘Gibson Girl’ does not exist. She has been as the grains of sand in number. I imagine that folks must recognize ‘United States’ in her, and that it’s that which makes them think she’s all, or nearly all, the same. She isn’t really.”
His mind turned to [another topic, which he began to speak about for a bit.]
We dropped this line of conversation for a moment and went back to talking of the “Gibson Girl.” This was not because he wished it; it was because I forced it. A passing bell-hop saw him looking bored and glanced at me resentfully. Gibson is the sort of chap who quickly makes all creatures, even bell-hops, fall in worship.
“If there really is no ‘Gibson Girl,’” (the thing was in my head and bothered me) “how did the name originate?”
“The first time the name was used was in a story which The Century gave me to illustrate. It dealt with a certain type of girl, and in the manuscript, when it came to me, this type was called, I think, the ‘Goodrich Girl.’ I noticed that the word was written over an erasure in the manuscript wherever it occurred, but that did not impress me. Later, when — that ‘Gibson’ took the place of ‘Goodrich’ on the printed page — I saw what had been really done, I blushed. I have been blushing ever since. Let’s drop the ‘Gibson Girl.’ I don’t want to feel uncomfortable tonight.
“I haven’t really created a distinctive type,” he went on, more comfortably, having recovered from his embarrassment, “the nation made the type. What Zangwill calls the ‘Melting Pot of Races’ has resulted in a certain character; why should it not also have turned out a certain type of face? If I have done anything it has been to put on paper some fair examples of that type with very great, with minute, care. There isn’t any ‘Gibson Girl,’ but there are many thousands of American girls, and for that let us all thank God.
“They are beyond question the loveliest of all their sex. Evolution has selected the best things for preservation as the man and woman have climbed up from the monkey. In the body, as it always is in battle, it has been the fittest which has survived. Men are stronger, braver than the savages from which they sprang. Why should they not be handsomer? Why should women not be beautiful increasingly? Why should it not be the fittest in the form and features, as well as in the mind and muscle, which survives? And where should that fittest be in evidence most strikingly? 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 to make our population.
Later in the article, Gibson laments that there is no good place to exhibit illustration in New York:
“Americans are doing really big things with brush and pencil. Yes; let the eagle scream! I think they lead the world as illustrators. But–“
Indignation crept into the face of the big artist.
“Well, what is the ‘but’?”
“There is an exhibition of the really good work of American illustrators now traveling about the country. It is in Pittsburg now, and later on will be shown in most of the important cities, all the way to San Francisco. Everybody ought to go to see it; but — I was disgusted when I found that there is not a place in New York City provided for such things. The work is of a character superior to any I have ever seen exhibited in any country; but New York stands a chance of losing opportunity to look at it. Such things make me very weary. I’m trying, now, to find a place where the pictures may be shown, when they get back from San Francisco…”
Charles Dana Gibson did help set up a place in New York for illustrators to show their work, at the Society of Illustrators. He was a founding member and one of the first Presidents of the organization. Their earliest meetings were attended by Howard Pyle, Maxfield Parish, N.C. Wyeth, Charles Dana Gibson, Frederic Remington, James Montgomery Flagg, Howard Chandler Christy and guests such as Mark Twain and Andrew Carnegie.
The Society still exists and they occupy the same old carriage house they’ve been in since 1939. A sort of clubhouse for illustrators, the Society holds sketching events upstairs where they have a full bar and dining area. And they have a gallery downstairs that rotates exhibits featuring prominent and emerging illustrators.
And the Society of Illustrators has a special prominence in my life, as I got married there a few years ago, surrounded by great artwork by the artists named above and others. I suppose in a way my wife is my Gibson Girl.
THE GIBSON GIRL ANALYZED BY HER ORIGINATOR: Artist Whose Delineation of the Young American Woman Made Him Famous Tells How the Type Came Into Existence and What Her Mission Is. (PDF)
From November 20, 1910
Leave a Reply