Charles Dana Gibson
Creator of American Social Types
Perriton Maxwell in Pearson’s
TO build up a great brilliant career and that by twenty years of stoop-shouldered, brainlashing industry; to achieve at eightand-thirty an actual, solid fame and an_ annual income embracing five fat figures; to have one’s handiwork appreciated equally in Paris, Kentucky and Paris, France; to satirize society and still be beloved of it; to be reckoned by cool, impartial critics as the greatest of living masters in one of the most exacting of all artistic mediums: and then, almost in a day, to sweep aside these sweets of destiny as if they were an incubus; to tear down blithely what had been reared with so much pain and patience; to topple over with placid, deliberation this pretty pile of blocks and cast upon the ash-heap that for which most men would barter life itself—in short, to abandon utterly what was, without doubt, the most extraordinary and substantial personal success in the whole history of illustrating is precisely what Charles Dana Gibson did, two years ago, when he threw away his drawing pens and sailed for Europe to study painting, to begin at the beginning of a new and difficult enterprise and learn to look on nature from a fresh angle of vision, to see things hereafter prismatically.
In renouncing illustration Gibson has practically renounced himself, for Gibson the painter, no matter how great his attainments on canvas, will never again be quite the Gibson we have learned to love and marvel at in the pages of the periodicals. And yet, in sheer justice to
him, we must recognize the fact that c
Gibson at forty, in his present-day fullness of physical and mental vigor free to do that which he has all his life desired to do, can scarcely go down-hill ; he has merely arrived at a parting of the road. “I’ve simply come to a point where I feel I can do better work in a broader field,” is the way he explains and justifies his action. There is another important fact to bear in mind—Gibson’s success has been a financial as well as an artistic one. He is practically a man “retired,” sitting comfortably on his money bags. No other worker in monochrome has enjoyed the monetary success he has had. His reputed income of $65,000 a year is well within the fact, that Gibson has a fine head for a business deal. In the happy description of one of his friends, “He was illustrating the troubles of young men and women in love, while buying real estate in New York out of the proceeds of these heart-throb drawings.”
On that November day two years ago when it was published broadcast that Charles Dana Gibson, creator of the “Gibson Girl” and master cartoonist of American social life, would no more draw for reproduction but would seek a brand-new reputation as a painter of portraits, there was a fine and genuine hullabaloo in the art world—and out of it. The news came as a distinct shock. Gibson was an established institution, and only earthquakes or a board-meeting can disrupt established institutions. But here was the confronting fact—an earthquake and board-meeting rolled into one
— Gibson had “chucked” illustration. It was as if the death of a friend had been megaphoned from the rooftrees. The bomb was well hurled and well timed. On the heels of the explosion came the announcement of the publication of Gibson’s tenth annual book of collected drawings—and his last. Then followed a widely-advertised exhibition of the artist’s best work, and in the midst of it all three alien pictures —portraits in oil, good ones, too— Gibson’s first publicly displayed work in the medium he was henceforth to make his own, the medium he was to conquer and enslave and bend to the bidding of his hand and eye.
There was a vast amount of noise and dust and beating of brass in all this, and Gibson was least happy of those interested. But he went out in a blaze of glory ; no American artist has ever been sent away from his own land with so much vociferate acclaim, with so many bouquets flung after him. He might almost have been a Bowery politician embarked on an up-state vacation. It is clear enough to those who know him that Gibson was mighty glad when the fireworks were over and the spot-light was turned the other way round.
Gibson is painfully modest ; he simply won’t talk about himself. Touch him upon his work, his methods, his future hopes, and he is as mute as the tomb of Moses. But start him on baseball, football, the latest affair of the prize-ring, or the work of some promising new-comer in the field of art and he is almost eloquent. lie is diffident by nature; it is part and parcel of his personality, not a pose. He is six feet shy ; a schoolboy with a bald head, a wonderful jaw and an infectious laugh. To make him tell his own story one must employ the arts of the diplomat, play him up and down stream like a trout, feed him a query here and there as the interlocutor does his end-men in the minstrels.
Finally, after many injections of 26 '
foreign matter and an aftermath of careful elimination there is left a fair residuum of pure Gibson. And it is well worth while, this verbal alchemy, for, like all men that do things notable and big, Gibson, once launched on the sea of talk, has his own estimate of life, his own viewpoint, his own way of pressing what he knows and what he feels.
“An artist,” says Gibson, tugging between the white wings of his huge collar as if to give his throat greater freedom for speech, “an artist is less interesting personally than the least of his works. Doubtless most public characters enjoy the glare of the limelight and have a thrill when they are pointed out in the streets, but for the rest of us that sort of thing is an ordeal we gladly forego, a terror from which we flee in a panic. I think that artists, more perhaps than any other class of men, should avoid personal exploitation. A painter, an illustrator, should put all of himself in his pictures, and these should stand or fall by their artistic merits. How can it affect my professional status or change my technique to have it published that I am fond of green peas and boating, that I prefer black to red cravats and that, all things being equal, I take my matutinal eggs done on one side only, am fond of Chopin and think Theodore Roosevelt the real thing in Presidents? Who really wants my opinion on any subject? Can prattling do anything but harm to the prattler—the prattler in print? A vast amount of rubbish is published in the name of art. A man should let his work talk for him. An artist determined to succeed must cut loose from afternoon teas and the cheap flatteries of newspaper lady-interviewers. I’ve managed to side-step the hurry-up heartto-hearter for a great many years, I’ve avoided talking for publication until I’ve grown positively superstitious over it. Perhaps even now I am doing myself a great and lasting injury?”
It was made evident by the twinkle
in his eye and by the up-curling of his mouth-corners that Gibson did not look upon his present indiscretion quite as seriously as his words would seem to imply. He has wit, dry crackling wit, this man, and humor, penetrating, cleverly, garbed, warm humor, genial and rosy as a grate-fire on a December evening. But why state the obvious? One can see the real Gibson in any of his splendid story-telling drawings. He has always lived up bravely enough to his own dictum, “Put yourself in your work” ; the man and his mind are reflected in every stroke of his pen. A narrow-minded person never could have evolved the Gibson breadth of handling; a weakling in spirit or physique never could have executed the large, human ideas he has given us in such abundance and with such apparent ease. One must meet this man face to face to understand his greatness. There is something in his quiet poise of head, in his strong, clean-cut countenance, in the frank, level look of his eye, in the larger planes of his face, as sculptors say, which cotiveys the impression of an antique mask—a mask of earlv Greece. Gibson would make a joke of this ; and that would be a surface indication of his innate modesty, a signal of distress advertising his fear of posturing. Perhaps, after all, it isn't quite fair to call a man of forty an antique, and yet the simile holds. After two years of wandering and out-door study in lower France, in Spain and Italy, Gibson's countenance, sun-tanned, is now more mask-like than ever—a mask of bronze.
Can you imagine anything more indiscreet, nay, anything more dangerous and devilish, than to touch upon the subject of the “Gibson Girl” in discussing serious art problems and the serious future with Gibson, the now serious painter? Think of the half-million times that world-worn phrase the “Gibson Girl” has been flung at him ; fancy the countless ways in which the
words have insinuated themselves into his every-day life ! Is it a matter for marvel that the artist has become bored with the “Gibson Girl,” after so many invariable years? Can you hold him blameless if he feels himself a Frankenstein and flees from that which he himself has created? Hear him on the subject:
“The ‘Gibson Girl' is dead—-she died several years ago, five perhaps—but her poor disembodied spirit goes marching on, a kind of ghostly feminine Wandering Jew in a dinner-frock; they won’t let her stay in her grave where I decently laid her, moons and moons since. I tried to give her a rest by marrving her off and presenting her with a family of children. Poor girl, she simply had to wed in self-defense. It was no good—she still remained the ‘Gibson Girl.' I made her a widow, and a sweet young thing in her teens. I even took her out of her social environment; I made her a hoyden, a shop-girl, a rollicking bohemian, but the popular name clung to her through every transformation. , It is strange how tenacious the public is in this matter of labels. And here is the truth of it all : I never consciously set out to create a special or particular type of American girl. I think, in justice to myself, my efforts have had a wider reach than that; I couldn’t be content with just one character or a single set of characters all cast in the same mold. I suppose I must continue to live down my youthful flirtations with the sex, and let the imaginary special type wear out her welcome.”
When he is interested and talking, Gibson has a way of folding himself up, bringing his knees to the level of his chin, his feet on a chair-round or a table-ledge and his large, strong, well-formed fingers locked over his shinbones. This seems to help him concentrate his thought ; it is a boyish trick and you like him for it.
“I am not saying the girl tvpe I
drew at the outset was an artistic indiscretion,” pursued the artist ; “I was trying to realize on paper the real American young woman—pretty, well-gowned, high-bred, distinctive. I never supposed she would develop such powers of cohesion with popular approval. She was never more frequent, never more dominant than other figures in the group; never more studiously drawn. She happened to please the fancy more than the rest—that’s all. It is a bad thing for an artist to strike a popular vein early in his career. He becomes associated in the minds of people with one line of work, with a single character, with a fixed and set achievement. This makes his other work fall into secondary place and importance, brings about verv often a false appreciation for what has been tagged as a dominant note, and reallv better efforts are in this wav overlooked, neglected.”
And this, then, is the genesis of the “Gibson Girl.” She came upon the scene unheralded, she came often in a crowd, she did not project herself to the fore, she made no frantic struggle for recognition, she did not announce herself as a type preeminent, and vet she was barely on the boards before she was acclaimed a; the ideal of a girl-adoring public, the sign and symbol of the eternal feminine at its zenith of charm and beauty. I suspect that Gibson himhelf has not quite cast her away from him, lovely bugaboo though she be, and that he will return to her, with more or less consciousness, again and again, presenting her in new, and more wonderful incarnations, and in the more material yet subtler capabilities of pigments and canvas and en haloed with the greater glorv of harmonious color.
Dana Gibson—lie was never Charles or Charlie to family or friends—came into being at Roxbury, Massachusetts, September 14th, 1867. New England influences have touched him very slightly. He
is a hardened New Yorker, if he
bears any civic trademark. That he was to be among the first of popular picture-makers in America could be neither foreseen nor very earnestly desired by the elder Gibsons. There was a certain strain of artistry running through the familv. and if any definite wish for the bov’s future was formulated it must have taken the shape of a prayer that he might be spared the drab uncertainty and erraticism of the art life.
You cannot keep a duck long away from the water where duck and water are in the same neighborhood. Boston is responsible for Gibson’s art and present-hour fame. Boston was near enough to Roxburv to mold a boy’s thoughts with its picture galleries and print shops, ff a bov had that kind of inclination. Gibson was not a precocious kiddv, but one or two of his childish scrawls, preserved in some miraculous wav. indicate a rather better understanding of shapes and proportions than the usual crudities of the pencil-wielding period. All children are artists at one stage in their development. You can smile indulgentlv when you find some one writing that a great artist began to draw while he was vet in the nursery: the drawing habit at that period is coeval with the mumps and whooping cough. Gibson proved no exception : he was just a bit more methodical and accurate.
Shortly after his people brought him on to Flushing, Long Island, he got seriouslv to work in his craft and for one full year he plugged awav in the Art Students* League. That was back in 1884-8=;. Tt was not until 1886 that his first drawing anpeared in print. According to Gibson it was “a measlv. half-baked thing of a dog barking at the moon, verv. badlv done, verv foolish and pointless.” And yet it was the real beginning of a brilliant career. The picture appeared in Life. It was without signature and Mr. Mitchell, the editor, had no means of knowing who the artist was; it had been
brought in, hurriedly left, and bore no address. It was thought good enough to reproduce, and its appearance made a very bold man of the Flushing youth, for he soon brought in other things and these were signed—signed with that long, attenuated scrawl that has since cost publishers a pretty penny to possess.
Probably no young artist had such discouragement at the beginning as did Gibson. He had tried the magazine editors until he was footsore; he was rebuffed like a beggar. I dare sav he could present some beautiful, grim statistics as to the exact number of steps lead ing up to the editorial sanctuaries of familiar New York publishing houses. He did not suffer for lack of the commoner comforts, for there was always his home across the Fast River. He did suffer mentallv ; he was sure he was a failure. Often he considered whether he should seek a clerkship ; onlv the thought that he might prove a worse clerk than artist held him to his original resolve. He owes all that he is today to Life, whose far-sighted editor nicked him out for a winner, as he has many another struggler to the front.
Gibson had fallen squarelv on his feet in T888, though he had not vet found his metier. His work at this period was chieflv political cartooning. In the Cleveland-Harrison campaign he put out of hand a number of clever, convincing drawings— drawings in which there were force and humor and the sting of satire. Then of a sudden he entered on a new field, with society for his target. Here he “found himself.” His humor became subtler, his satire still keen but more nicely balanced. He made excellent use of his friends, espec.allv Richard Harding Davis, who posed for him at all times. Davis himself was just coming into his own in those rear days, and in Gibson’s pictures he played many parts —a lover, a cabman, a pugilist, a soldier, a waiter, all the stock char-
acters of the modern society drama on paper.
And speaking of Richard Hardings Davis, it may not be amiss at this juncture to quote his encomium on Gibson. Few men know the artist better than the author of “Soldiers of Fortune” and a dozen other popular novels. Said he: “I find Dana’s pictures wherever I go, and editors send me all over the world. In Yokohama I found his books of drawings used to fill double window displays. In Germany I met some people who, on being presented to the Kaiser, were asked if thev knew Dana Gibson, whose work, the ‘war lord’ said, he admired greatly. The King and Queen of England when thev were the Prince and Princess of Wales purchased his pictures in the Strand. I have seen them decorating the palm-leaf shacks of Central America, and in Durban, South Africa, I have seen them stuck on the walls of houses. I do not believe people in America know, and I am sure Dana doesn’t know, how widely popular his pictures are, because until now he has not traveled much. The aid he has given me in selling my books bv means of his illustrations has been incalculable. And this is no idle compliment but purely a business act. Where a book of mine without illustrations would sell ten copies: if Dana put a few pictures of long-legged men in it, it would sell twenty.'” That is a fine, square, manly thing for an author to say about an artist collaborator.
Gibson is anything but a recluse, he has always been fond of contact with his fellows. He is what we call in Americanese “a good mixer.” Despite his inherent shyness he is not of the artistic ilk that mopes in the twilight, or works away from the crowd. T think he has but little patience with ultraesthetes who employ the slogan “Art for art’s sake.” “Good work seldom goes long unappreciated,” says he. “In the beginning one’s audience is apt to be a small one and appreciation feeble,
but conscientious effort and sound results are far too scarce to remain uniecognized. One of the great defects in the make-up of most artists is their mental narrowness. This usually comes from enforced or perhaps a voluntary isolation. To spend all of one’s time within the four walls of a studio is to get out of touch with the human side of life. The theory that an artist must of necessity be impractical is all wrong. There is no reason in the world why a painter or an illustrator should confine his success to art alone or limit his efforts to the studio. If an artist has interests of a legitimate nature which bring him into other spheres of activity, into contact with men and women of dissimilar inclinations and pursuits, his range of vision must necessarily widen, his sympathies deepen, and his understanding of human nature become more comprehensive and himself broadened. Of course no one can succeed if his efforts are scattered. Any one who rises above the level of the commonplace is an artist. The one thing to be dreaded when success arrives is the ‘big head’; but the ‘big head’ is a disease nearly always peculiar to very small men.”
In the evolution of Charles Dana Gibson’s style as a draughtsman there have been six successive steps : In his earliest work he resorted to fine lines and much ineffectual “cross-hatching.” In his first drawings of social types we find him blending fine lines to a tone, with less cross-hatching, but , dark shadows and always a careful outline. Later he got into a way of drawing in parallel lines, avoiding solid blacks and now and then dispensing wholly with an outline. Then came a period when his effects were achieved with lines finely crossed in the background, but kept to a grey and even tone, and the faces of his men and women shadowed darkly and of woodeny texture. Finally, out of these experimental methods, came the bold,
shading lines sweeping down across his faces. His drawings seemed simpler, but it was the simplicity of mastership. His outlines in this last stage are sure, brilliant, daring, and his use of blacks as bold as Satan.
In his work put forth just prior to his abandonment of pen and ink Gibson reached the pinnacle of his powers. His drawings lost their coldness of paralleling lines, his mannerisms no longer flaunted themselves over the composition, for the handling of each new subject determined its exact technical treatment. His feeling for color is ver^ pronounced in each of his final drawings, and maintaining color-values with bare lines and splotches of black is no easy thing to do, as any artist will tell you. The formation of his style has been in keeping with Gibson’s whole career; he has progressed step by step from small acchievements to greater ones.
I once asked Gibson how long it took him to complete a certain “he and she” composition upon which he was then at work. “I began this one fifteen years ago,” he replied. To my look of bewilderment he responded: “That is not egotism. You know what I mean. It takes a man a lifetime to acquire the ‘know how.’ The lawyer who receives a fee of thousands for a few hours’ work is being paid for the years of toil ic took him to reach the point where his advice is cheap at any price. Just so with the artist. I receive a thousand dollars apiece for my pen-and-inks because there lie back of them twenty years of experience, of hard work, of conscientious study and intense application of eye and hand. In the actual mechanical production I may turn a finished drawing in a day; I destroy ten unsatisfactory things to every one that is reproduced.”
It was this ability to view the work of his own hand with an impartial scrutiny, to estimate his own creations as if they were those of ati utter stranger, which has enabled
Gibson to climb up where he stands to-day. As a painter he will doubtless achieve a newer and greater fame upon the same uncompromising terms. To Gibson the world never seemed to owe him a living;« the world was his oyster and he bolted it whole and asked no questions. When a man cherishes the conviction that the world owes him a living the time is ripe for him to wade right in and collect the debt ; this Gibson did almost in his teens.
Although he has gone abroad to study some of the old and the new masters of art Gibson has no intention af alienating himself from his native soil as did Whistler—who began his career as a monochromatist and ended it the same way—as did Sargent, Abbey, Boughton, and a score of others. Gibson is all American in thought and in spirit. “American artists,” he declares, “are doing the best work in the world to-day. Our people are not yet alive to the fact, but the fact remains. I am living abroad merely to study what has been done in the past and to let every influence play upon me in the countries I visit. I worked for the money at first, and now that I have accumulated some I shall work for better things. The dollar should not always be the chief consideration in one’s art; but as conditions exist to-day it is necessary first to acquire a competence, and then search out one’s ideals.”
Once a year, Mr. Gibson declares, he will return to America “just to keep in touch with things.” Last June he made a vacation trip to this country, going to Islesboro, Maine, for a few months and returning to Paris early in November. In a talk about his future plans he affirmed he had no definite line of action, “I am just working along and destroying most of what I produce. I am not studying under any particular master, though I have established an atelier in Paris. I get criticism, plenty of it, and good, wholesome criticism, too. I know a number of the best men in the
French capital—painters of high iepute, and they come around and tell me candidly what they think of my work. I have learned a great deal in the past two years ; much of my present knowledge would have helped me enormously in my old line of work. I study faces and figures and grapple with the technique of painting. I think I am making a little progress. My chief concern is for simplicity of treatment and directness of handling. Strong work must be simple. The color is not as important as the correctness of values. The problems in oil painting are pretty much what they are in black-and-white drawing. I enjoy my new work tremendously, and I just go ahead doing things and destroying them. AVhen I can satisfy myself that I have mastered my new tools I will stop burning up my canvases and let the public see what I have done. I am not trying for any particular technique—that will come. I believe, of itself. You cannot be a painter in a day, nor a year, nor two years. I have been fighting with my new medium for nearly that length of time and I am just beginning to get a grip on it.
I can make no promises—not even to myself. I can only continue to paint and destroy, paint and destroy, and again paint and destroy.”
Gibson has the splendid faith of a Christian martyr. He could not be boastful if he tried. He is probably already a sound technician with the brush ; he was that, indeed, before he set sail for Paris. But he has yet to achieve results that will not~ merely pass muster ; they must satisfy him, they must be unique. He has faith in himself, faith in the ultimate triumph of his will over the tools of his new trade. You cannot abash nor discourage a spirit and a determination such as his.
“I recommend pen-and-ink for beginners,” was his advice when asked to explain his preference for the medium through which he won his renown, “and the reason is simple:
by using line their shortcomings are easily seen and located. In other mediums the tyro is apt to be noncommittal and deal in broad, pale smudges, somewhere inside of which he hopes the right drawings may be. It is far better for him to do this drawing in a definite way, for the louder it calls out for correction the better off he is. To draw correctly should be a beginner’s first concern. Time is needed, and if none of it is wasted style will be acquired quite unconsciously.” And yet does any one believe that the mere flight of time, time well spent to be sure, has produced the Gibson style? Genius is neither an inheritance nor a cultivated plant ; it is a rare, inexorable bacillus and it fastens on mighty few moderns.
It has been suggested that a permanent gallery of drawings in blackand-white representing the choicest products of American illustrators be established in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The idea seems a capital one and worthy of the country’s greatest art institution. Should the idea fructify and such a gallery become an established fact, Charles Dana Gibson must needs occupy considerable wall space therein, since no synthetic or historical array of American pictures can ever
be complete without a full contribution from his portfolios. Such is the indelible stamp of the man on his own time.
What Gibson may accomplish in colorful canvases during the days to come, what he has set himself to do in the way of high achievement is, after all, an unwritten page. Let us wish him God-speed in his ambitious task; but do not let us for a moment forget that he has given us a set of characters as individual as those of Dickens, as true to the life as any camera product, but glorified by the genius of his style. He has made us happier on many an occasion by the sheer force of his wit, his satire, his marvelous understanding of the human creature. It is not the “Gibson Girl” that will keep a memory of him alive in the hearts of men and women in al stations of life; it is something far more profound than the creation of a single type. It is his intuitive and unerring instinct for the essentials of character, his swift interpretation of what lies under the skin and clothes of his pen-and-ink people which has given him a place apart among the world’s great illustrators, a place he will hold secure despite all his future failures, all his future success.
We can have the highest happiness only by having wide thoughts and much feeling for the rest of the world as well as for ourselves. The great thing is to love — not to be loved. Love is for both worlds. Perfect happiness is for the other only.