Charles Dana Gibson

The Gibson Girl

Art is more than some little miracle of genius colliding with a canvas. Part of it is luck, of course. Van Gogh is a prime example of the unlucky artist whose work must survive his own death to be appreciated by a lucky public. Sometimes we have to wonder why one artist became so revered while this other, seemingly equal, artist withered away into oblivion.

In our modern times we see art produced by a kind of commercial machine wherein untalented people pool their philistine resources to try and manufacture interest in artists they can personally control. These artists might well evolve into genuine creative figures if only they can shed the influence of their “helpers,” but more often they find themselves abandoned at the end of “Fifteen Minute Road” along with all the other names that make us wrinkle our brows and say, “Oh, yeah, wasn’t that somebody?”

But even with all our modern scientific socio-manipulation  luck remains the joker in the deck, the thing which ultimately decides what is great and what is dross, what is beloved and what is scorned. In American history there are very, very few images which are immortal: the figures of Benjamin Franklin, of Abraham Lincoln, of a Coca-Cola bottle, of John Wayne, and the images of Mickey Mouse, any Norman Rockwell, and the Gibson Girls.

The Gibson Girl was the ne plus ultra of branding and marketing. These simple designs adorned almost every conceivable household item from pillows to kerchiefs to trivets to you-name-it. Published regularly in Life Magazine, made available in the first coffee table books, widely used in advertising and to illustrate novels, these images were immediately recognizable to every man, woman, and child in the country, and beyond to most of the western world.

She was the first pin-up girl. Imagine that. For over two decades Gibson reigned as the most popular and successful illustrator in America. He enjoyed wealth and fame. Yet, when he began, his drawings were so crude and indifferent almost no one would buy them. His first sold piece was a drawing of a dog tied to a doghouse which he sold to Life Magazine. The editor at Life saw something in the young illustrator, and encouraged him, helped him. Luck. It is almost unheard of to find such a patron nowadays. Today some machine would have said keep doing those doghouses, you know that’s where your strength lies, that’s your market, baby.

The Gibson Girl stood taller than most women; even in pictures like “The Weaker Sex” the ladies all look like each other. Gibson saw no reason to vary her much. She represented an ideal, a mischievous, intelligent, beautiful woman that you did not deserve but might just get to marry.

It all depended on your luck.

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5 Responses to Charles Dana Gibson

  1. Pat Snyder says:

    I’ve always liked these girls, simple yet elegant. I never really thought of them as pin-ups, but they do bring to mind the Petty Girls and Varga girls of WWII era. They all have a playful look that no photo or realistic painting could capture. The Petty and Vargas were supposedly sexy, and in their own way they were but the mischievous joy in their lines elevate them from much that is trashy in pin-ups.
    I kept looking at the first girl, wondering why I thought her so pretty. Her hair is very well done and the lips are perfect, yet it is the nose I think that makes the character. It is elegant yet saucy. Can’t say I’ve ever thought of a saucy nose, but the turn of it is perfect.

    • foxpudding says:

      Upon seeing the completed Sistine Chapel the Pope congratulated Michelangelo on his work. Michelangelo replied, “It’s all in the drawing. The rest I can get by pissing on it.” —Quoted by Peter Falk from his autobiography.

      Yeah, it’s all in the drawing.

  2. Ben Karlin says:

    It’s amazing how much Myrna Loy, especially as Nora Charles in The Thin Man movies, followed the Gibson image. I can see now why she was so wildly popular. She was the embodiment of an ideal that was well-marketed for decades before she appeared.

    • foxpudding says:

      I had not thought of her that way, but you are exactly correct. Myrna Loy was Gibson’s ideal brought to life. A modern actress who used to draw the Gibson comparison regularly is Bernadette Peters.

  3. Pingback: Gil Elvgren | The Automat

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