(The following is a story written by Martha Kennedy for the May-June 2013 edition of the Library of Congress Magazine, LCM.)
The Library’s new exhibition “The Gibson Girl’s America: Drawings by Charles Dana Gibson” features works by a great American master of pen-and-ink drawing selected from the Library’s Cabinet of American Illustration.
The story of how drawings by Gibson (1867-1944) and other illustrators became part of the cabinet presents a fascinating case history of building a collection. A special initiative launched in the 1930s enabled the Library to acquire many masterworks from the Golden Age of Illustration (1880-1930), a pre-radio and pre-television era when illustrated books, magazines, and newspapers provided essential sources of entertainment, enlightenment, and self-improvement for the American public.
The cabinet came into being largely through the dedicated efforts of William F. Patten, who persuaded Leicester Holland, then the chief of the Library’s Division of Fine Arts (now the Prints and Photographs Division), to start a collection of original illustration art for the nation. Holland provided modest support to Patten as he contacted illustrators or their heirs to request original drawings. As the art editor of Harper’s magazine in the 1880s-1890s, Patten was passionate about illustration and knew many leading illustrators and pursued his mission with urgency, as many of them were elderly and had not always saved much of their work.
Most leading Golden Age illustrators acquired excellent drawing skills through fine-art training and applied their best efforts to completing book, magazine and advertising assignments—often on tight deadlines. Although peak demand for illustration drawings had passed by the 1930s, Holland and Patten both comprehended the artistic and cultural significance of the art form. In the Librarian’s 1932 annual report, Holland asserted that illustration “was probably not only the most highly developed art in this country but had reached a higher development here than anywhere else in the world.”
When Patten contacted Gibson, the artist replied in a letter that he was honored by the invitation, supported the endeavor, and pledged gifts of his work, promising “only those that can make the grade.”
His response was typical of many illustrators and their heirs. By 1935, Gibson had generously donated more than 75 exemplary drawings, most featuring his signature creation, the “Gibson Girl”—a vibrant new feminine ideal. These included some works from two of his best known series, “The Education of Mr. Pipp” and “The Weaker Sex.”
The Cabinet of American Illustration grew rapidly and today numbers 4,000 drawings and prints by more than 250 artists. From 1933-1939, the Library mounted exhibitions of newly acquired works, thereby affirming enthusiastic support for building the collection and recognizing the high esteem in which illustration art was held. The cabinet’s holdings of outstanding works by leading illustrators embody the diverse array of styles, genres, techniques and subject matter characteristic of the art form during its Golden Age. Today, the Library continues to acquire selected examples of original illustration art.
The Cabinet of American Illustration is an excellent resource not only for enjoying individual works of art on paper but also for studying how artists influenced one another. Images of Gibson’s idealized young women inspired imitators as well as rivals, and examples of other illustrators’ icons of feminine beauty abound in the cabinet. “Know All Men by These Presents” by Coles Phillips (1880-1927) beautifully represents his stunning creation, the “Fade-away Girl.” Wladyslaw Benda (1873-1948) fashioned the “Benda Girl,” an exotic, almond-eyed beauty that graced the covers of Hearst’s International Magazine and other magazines. Nell Brinkley (1886-1944) portrayed her “Brinkley Girl” in such lovely forms as “Golden Eyes,” her dynamic World War I heroine.
Strong representation of several prominent women illustrators also distinguishes the cabinet’s excellent coverage of Golden Age illustration. Among them, Elizabeth Shippen Green (1871-1954), Jessie Wilcox Smith (1863-1935) and Alice Barber Stephens (1858-1932) all became known and well-respected in a field dominated by men. This was no small feat when illustrators were often public figures, and some, like Gibson, even achieved celebrity status.
Along with Gibson, Stephens gained standing when she won a commission in 1897 from the Ladies’ Home Journal for six cover drawings that alternated with his cover designs. Among more than 90 drawings and prints by her in the cabinet are award-winning works also considered her finest book illustrations—for George Eliot’s “Middlemarch” (1899), and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Marble Faun” (1900). The cabinet also holds Daniel Carter Beard’s drawings for another classic, Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” (1889).
In addition to illustrations for literary classics, the cabinet holds many drawings created for popular fiction and children’s readers. Rosina Emmett Sherwood (1854-1948) drew an amusing example of the latter, “Miss Cloud and Miss Sunbeam” (1888) for “Harper’s Third Reader.”
The Library mounted exhibitions of works by both Stephens and Edward Penfield (1866-1925) in 1936. Penfield, who was influenced by French poster design, took a leading role as a poster artist and key player in the transformation of magazine covers into poster-like designs. His drawing in the cabinet, “The Doughboys Make Good” (1918) stands out vividly among his many masterful works as a model of innovative design and use of color in WWI cover art.
The cabinet holds hundreds of other war-related drawings, including dramatic scenes of military action by William Glackens (1870-1938) and pointed cartoon commentaries by W. A. Rogers (1854- 1931). Gibson, too, created powerful cartoons sharply critical of Germany during WWI and the current exhibition includes examples of his engagement with such leading political issues later in his career.
By virtue of their artistry alone, Gibson’s drawings represent a crowning glory within the Cabinet of American Illustration. Known primarily for drawings of archetypal beauties for magazines, he was surprisingly versatile and prolific, like many of his peers, producing book illustrations, advertising posters and political cartoons. His work offers a window into the visual riches to be found in the Cabinet of American Illustration, a collection of original art that reflects and visually documents the multi-faceted experiences and aspirations of American society during an era whose final years signal transition toward modernism in
American art forms.
This article is featured in the May-June 2013 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine, LCM, now available for download here. You can also view the archives of the Library’s former publication from 1993 to 2011.