(The following is a guest post by Katherine Blood of the Prints and Photographs Division.)
Illustrator Charles Dana Gibson was already a celebrity when tapped in April 1917 to lead the federal government’s Division of Pictorial Publicity — an arm of Woodrow Wilson’s Committee on Public Information. He was enlisted by Committee head George Creel, who believed that visual art could provide a unique service in winning the hearts and minds of the American public. And not just any art — nothing less than the best art by the best artists was sought to bolster recruitment, fundraising, service by women and civilians and troop support in myriad forms including contributions for camp libraries. When Gibson famously urged fellow artists to “Draw ‘till it hurts!” in support of America’s war effort, he was addressing such luminaries as James Montgomery Flagg, Howard Chandler Christy and Edward Penfield, to name just a few of the division’s more than 300 participants.
Among Gibson’s most enduring creations was the iconic Gibson Girl, who began appearing in the 1890s. She embodied the “New Woman” who was active and independent, intelligent and beautiful. But a very different kind of Gibson woman commanded my attention when I had the chance to co-curate the exhibition “World War I: American Artists View the Great War” with my colleague Sara W. Duke. In a vivid satire called “And the Fool, He Called Her His Lady Fair,” Gibson presents war as a woman who is an unsettling hybrid of menace and allure, the seeming antithesis of the fresh, youthful and wholesome Gibson Girl ideal. At the same time, her casual dominance over a male companion echoes a recurring theme in Gibson’s work in which women are anything but the weaker sex. Here, she is a bored femme fatale, dripping with disdain. Contemporary audiences would have recognized her would-be partner as a sardonic incarnation of Germany’s Supreme War Lord Kaiser Wilhem II. Gibson presents him as a kind of visual double-entendre, clutching his chest in a way that might suggest amorous suitor or heart attack victim. His neglected gifts of roses, pearls and coins are strewn around the room. Among them, an Iron Cross medal lies ignored on the couch — suggesting that Wilhelm has lost or squandered his valor.
The lady is richly-dressed and thin to the point of emaciation. Her skeletal hand, raised in a gesture of languid rejection, might prompt viewers to expect a cigarette. Instead, the smoke evokes the sinister presence of poison gas in a parlor that is also a battlefield. In case we were in any doubt, a bottle of wine on a small table near her knees bears a skull and crossbones, underscoring that this lady is a deadly creature. The wine drips from the table in a viscous, blood-like way and pools at her feet.
Martha Kennedy, curator for the Library’s 2013 exhibition “Gibson Girl’s America” and an aficionado of the archetype’s evolving persona points out that this theme must have haunted Gibson during the interwar years: “He appears to have re-worked it in a World War II era painting in which he depicts a harlot holding a mask in one hand while raising the other to reveal her gaunt, sunken face, causing Hitler, like Kaiser Wilhelm II, to jump back in consternation.” Variations on this theme can also be connected more broadly back to 15th-century “Dance of Death” traditions in which Death confronts the living regardless of rank or merit. Gibson’s razor-sharp allegory still packs a punch — offering today’s viewers a hall-of-mirrors meditation on the nature of power, gender dynamics, war, and wisdom.
World War I Centennial, 2017-2018: With the most comprehensive collection of multi-format World War I holdings in the nation, the Library of Congress is a unique resource for primary source materials, education plans, public programs and on-site visitor experiences about The Great War including exhibits, symposia and book talks.