Charles Dana Gibson, the Man Who Created the American Girl
In the waning years of the nineteenth century a youth of 17 pounded the streets of New York trying to sell his wares. He imagined himself an artist, but with little training and even less in the way of art materials, the editors he hounded didn’t see him the same way. Doggedly persistent and after untold rejections, but with too much exuberance to quit, the youth eventually found himself in front of an editor at LIFE magazine; an editor who actually agreed to give one of his drawings a try. It was a small and rather crude pen and ink sketch of a puppy, but that puppy would launch the career of one of America’s greatest illustrators, and change the lives of American womanhood forever.
An Unplanned Beginning
.Charles Dana Gibson was a kindly and modest person with an infectious personality. He was well-liked by most whom he met which may have helped in getting that first sale from LIFE. New York City editors weren’t exactly champing at the bit to publish pen and ink drawings by unknown teen-aged artists from Roxbury. Especially a young artist with a new and perhaps unsalable style. Color was the rage, and color lithography was still king. Loosely drawn pen and ink art was only fit for editorial cartoons and crude humor, not serious illustration. It would never sell!
But sell, it did! The LIFE editor’s office was swamped with positive comments and requests for more of the same, which Gibson was happy to supply. The public’s reaction to this new artistic upstart did not go unnoticed by editors across the country, and within a year his work was in demand. LIFE did not ask exclusivity, so his work also appeared in Century Magazine and Harper’s. In that one year Charles Dana Gibson’s career had taken off like a rocket on Independence Day.
Sudden success did not go to Gibson’s head, and he always remained loyal to the editor of LIFE who gave him his first chance. Other magazines, particularly Colliers, tried to lure him away from LIFE with promises of more money for exclusive contracts, but he turned out to be more loyal than greedy. His loyalty was such that by 1918 he was a LIFE editor himself, and in later years the magazine’s owner.
So great was the demand from the public for his style of illustration, publishers were competing for his work, the same work that until recently no one wanted. His income and career were assured, and he was still not yet 25 years old.
Marriage and Rise to Fame
Charles Gibson was of modest upbringing, but he married well. By the early 1890s Gibson was an up and coming in-demand illustrator with an income that allowed him to move in upper middle-class circles. In his social travels he had the good fortune to meet and become captivated by the lovely and charming Irene Langhorne, a daughter of old Virginia. In 1895 they were married and remained happily so. Through Irene’s acquaintances Charles could now move within the highest social circles in the land, though he never lost his modest and unassuming manner.
Irene had four younger sisters, all tall, graceful and beautiful by contemporary accounts. They were a source of constant inspiration for her husband’s drawings. One sister, Nancy, was the victim of an especially traumatic divorce and, at the insistence of her father, moved to England to escape bad memories. While there she remarried into British aristocracy, becoming Lady Astor, the first woman ever to hold a seat in the English parliament.
The Gibson Girl
In the fall of 1894 the first collection of Charles Gibson’s drawings was published in New York. The “Gibson Girl” now became the rage. Unknown to most, a transformation of American society had begun, an unstoppable revolution that would continue to this very day. A prominent critic of the time, Mr. Israel Zangwill, wrote: “Mr. Gibson merits the pride with which his countrymen speak of him. He has created the ‘American Girl’, and a charming creature she is…”
With the help of Gibson and his new American Girl, the young Edwardian female generation gave their prudish Victorian mothers apoplexy. Women were getting bad ideas. They were thinking for themselves, speaking to men before being spoken to, having independent ideas about politics, some even cutting their hair or walking on the street without a male chaperone! And there were even rumors of women voting. Oh, the humanity!
Charles Gibson loved women, not as a womanizer but with a fascination akin to a moth’s attraction to a candle flame. He saw them as something wondrously beautiful, but also impossible to understand.
The Eternal Question
A woman was something to hold in awe both for her infinite capacity to love and nurture as well her equal ability to hurt and destroy. He saw women like the facets of a fine diamond, a swirling mass of colorful flashes, now red, now blue, now gone, leaving only the cold crystal depths where the color had once been, a beautiful, painful confusion. Woman, the eternal question.
Charles Gibson used several, probably six or eight, regular models for his drawings. There was not a “Gibson Girl”, but several, or many, used as inspiration, for the drawings were not portraits of a model but executions of an idea. Gibson preferred anonymity for his sketches, so rarely was any particular model named. The sketch “The Eternal Question” is a good example. It will disappoint anyone seeking a portrait of Evelyn Nesbit in that drawing, though the hair is unmistakably hers, for the photo from which it was taken still exists. The face could be that of many women, but the hair is the idea, her luxurious locks in a rude form of a question mark: woman, the enigma. It’s almost certain that was not Ms. Nesbit's intention in this pose.
Evelyn Nesbit was famous in her own right while Gibson was still a relative unknown. Gibson Girl sketches of her exist, but most modern scholars believe he did them from photographs, not a sitting model. There is little or no evidence that Nesbit ever modeled for Gibson but because of her existing renown, and because some drawings are known to be her, she has always gotten the lion’s share of attribution as THE “Gibson Girl”.
Ms. Nesbit traveled in some rather unsavory circles and had many shady acquaintances. Scandal seemed to follow her. Gibson wanted his drawings to portray American female strength, wholesome beauty and sweet innocence. Nesbit was strong and certainly beautiful, but sweet and innocent? Hardly.
Being at the height of her fame, Evelyn Nesbit was in great demand within her profession as a model and actress. To contract with her would have been like trying to get Lillian Russell or Maud Adams; the cost was prohibitive.
There is disagreement about who was the first Gibson Girl. Some say Evelyn Nesbit, others Minnie Clark. From my own studies of contemporary writings I have to believe it was none other than the wife of Charles Gibson, Irene Langhorne herself, done a year or more before their marriage. One of the earliest and most iconic images is known to be Irene. Many internet sites attribute this image to Irene Adler, a fictional character from a Sherlock Holmes story. The image has been used to portray the Holmes character, but is actually that of Langhorne
Gibson Girl "Types"
Mr. Gibson categorized the new American Girl into seven types, but since several overlap I have condensed them into three, the Beauty, the Tom-Boy and the Hopeless Romantic. My apologies to Charles Gibson for changing the names a little to better fit our modern language.
The Beauty - She’s beautiful, of course. She is instantly noticed in public because she spends hours adjusting make-up and clothing, ensuring everything is perfect, before she opens her door to parade in public view. She walks with the lightness of a Summer breeze and the grace of angels, head held high and all with the latest fashions, of course. She is truly in love, though most of that love is for herself. Men grow faint when she honors them with a casual glance, and her strength and independence are forces of nature.
The Tom-Boy - Remember Zelda Gilroy? She’s just “one of the guys”, a loyal and eternal pal. She’s a rock in times of trouble, but sometimes she’s unintentionally the cause of that trouble. She’s more at home in a canoe or pool room than a dance floor. She can fix a flat tire or tell a dirty joke, but she has a unique and wonderful beauty that is adorable. Not afraid to wear a man’s shirt or cut her hair, she drives her Victorian mother crazy. All men love her but few love her romantically, though she can be a romantic person when she wants, and she has lots of pent-up emotion. Any man who can understand her and accept her as she is she will find her a great wife who is also a best friend.
The Hopeless Romantic - This woman is in love…with love. She loves everything and everyone. She falls in love with a man quickly and intensely, but once he takes her seriously she quickly meets someone else who needs her love as well. She goes through men like water through a sieve. She knows she’s a heartbreaker and that makes her sad, but she has way too much love to share. Love is her solace, her refuge in time of need. She is in love with the idea of being in love.
Gibson's Girls' Influence on Society
The Edwardian Era was a rough time for mature ladies steeped in Victorian traditions. Many thought their daughters and grand-daughters had gone completely insane. The huge flowered Victorian hats were disappearing, being replaced by something much smaller and lighter, or no hat at all. Women were giving up the mounds of hard to maintain hair in favor of short haircuts, and bangs become common. The new American Girl saw little use for the fifteen pounds of fabric and nine petticoats their mothers insisted they wear when leaving the house. Hem weights disappeared, and hems became shorter, some even showing the ankles INTENTIONALLY! High button shoes and button hooks were thrown out, being replaced with lighter stylish and colorful shoes actually designed to be seen in public. Women became confident enough to no longer strive for the wasp-waist look, so Mama’s shirtwaist dresses and those horrible torture machines known as corsets were given the heave-ho.
The Gibson Girl influences went well beyond fashion. The newly found sense of independence gave women the confidence to seek jobs outside the home in occupations rarely open to them. Slowly but surely more and more women were seen in offices as secretaries, stenographers, telephone switchboard operators and even accountants.
The most profound and lasting influence of all germinating from the Gibson Girl era was women’s new “can do” spirit. Now nothing was off-limits to them, even politics. This attitude was a major factor in passing the amendment allowing women the right to vote, and passing prohibition of alcohol. Gibson’s own wife, Irene, became a Suffragette and worked tirelessly for the rights of women. What hath God wrought?
Not everything was easy for them but once off the leash the liberated women of America were unstoppable and still are. I’ve often wondered what went through Charles Gibson’s mind while watching most of these social changes come about, knowing he had a major hand in opening this Pandora’s Box. Of course Gibson might rationalize and say these things would have happened regardless, but he gave them a couple decades head start.
This is not a biography, merely a salute to a man through whose efforts women were emancipated. An emancipation that echoes round the world to this day, though that was not Gibson’s intention in the beginning. As a young man of modest personality, he merely desired to make a living doing the thing he loved, and to honor the women he adored. Once the Genie escaped his magic lamp he no longer had control, and could only observe the whirlwind of events he had helped to create.
Charles Dana Gibson is not a name well-recognized within women’s rights groups today, but wherever they strive and march for gender equality, social and economic justice or removal of the “glass ceiling” the Gibson Girl spirit has led the way, and they shall be forever in the lead, recognized or not.
Yes, Charles Dana Gibson created the “American Girl” and turned his creation into the strongest woman the world has ever known.