Charles Dana Gibson: Exhibiting an Illustrator Who also Shines as a Cartoonist

Head of a Girl. Pen and ink drawing by Charles Dana Gibson, ca. 1893

Head of a Girl. Pen and ink drawing by Charles Dana Gibson, ca. 1893. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.33592

The following is a guest post by Martha H. Kennedy, Curator of Popular & Applied Graphic Art.

The renowned illustrator Charles Dana Gibson (1867-1944) is best known for creating the Gibson Girl, that dazzling paragon of feminine beauty—with a flawless face, steadfast gaze, small-waisted yet voluptuous form, that tall beguiling being who radiated grace no matter what. Could the artist who invented this enchanting and widely emulated ideal of American womanhood also be considered a cartoonist?

While selecting works for a new exhibition about Gibson (on view at the Library from March 30 through August 17, 2013), I began to realize just how often his elegant drawings incorporate sharp political commentary with humorous social observations.

A look at The Jury Disagrees (1904) demonstrates Gibson’s remarkable narrative gifts and masterful pen-and-ink technique. How he achieves impeccable depictions of clothing and facial expressions as well as mockery of social pretension with such concise, perfectly placed lines of ink is a wonder to behold.

The Jury Disagrees. Pen and ink drawing by Charles Dana Gibson, 1904. Published in: Life 43 (May 12, 1904): 464-465.

The Jury Disagrees. Pen and ink drawing by Charles Dana Gibson, 1904. Published in: Life 43 (May 12, 1904): 464-465. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cai.2a12841

On reflection, I now wholeheartedly agree that many of the great cartoonists employ the same skills as great illustrators in creating visual imagery that conveys pointed messages in a humorous light. The Jury Disagrees is both an impressive social cartoon and a compelling illustration that tells a story about a young woman.

As further evidence, consider Gibson’s political cartoon, In Her Path (1917), one of many he created during World War I.

In Her Path. Pen and ink drawing by Charles Dana Gibson, 1917. Published in: Life, 70 (November 8, 1917): 749

In Her Path. Pen and ink drawing by Charles Dana Gibson, 1917. Published in: Life, 70 (November 8, 1917): 749. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.33519

What has happened to the Gibson Girl? We see no less a noble female figure, but she has been transformed into a monumental allegorical Miss Democracy symbolically vanquishing German autocracy, which is represented by the caricatured head of Kaiser Wilhelm II. The allegorical figure of Peace alights in the background of this dynamic, powerfully expressive cartoon.

The Library has one of the best collections of Gibson’s original works of art on paper. Our new exhibition, The Gibson Girl’s America, features significant examples of the artist’s matchless social and political commentary in the Graphic Arts Galleries through August 17, 2013.

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One Comment

  1. Katherine
    April 17, 2013 at 11:01 am

    Wonderful post and stunning show – thank you!

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