Charles Dana Gibson was born in Roxbury, Massachusetts to a politically active family in 1867. His father was a Civil War Lieutenant and an amateur artist. During a childhood illness, Gibson’s father showed him how to make silhouettes of people and animals. At the age of 12, Gibson entered and won a local art competition. Recognizing his early talent, his parents enrolled him in New York’s Art Students League. After two years of study, he sold his first pen and ink sketch to John Ames Mitchell at Life magazine. It was a cartoon of a dog baying at the moon. Mitchell did not think the work was well executed, but felt the artist had honesty and courage and gave him a chance.
Gibson steadily improved. He sold work to other major magazines and was called on to illustrate books as well. By 1889, he had saved enough to go to Europe to study there. He came back in 1890 to contribute regularly to a number of publications, including a weekly submission to Life. Gibson’s most celebrated figure, the Gibson Girl, had her early appearances in Life around this time. She was a beautiful, confident, athletic, thoroughly modern woman. She was kind but did not suffer fools gladly. She epitomized the turn-of-the-century American ideal of a truly American aristocracy. Not only was she immensely popular, she soon became a marketing bonanza and appeared on a wide variety of items, even wallpaper.
Gibson married Irene Langhorne in 1895. His elegant new bride and her sister, Nancy Astor, served as inspiration for his ever popular Gibson Girls. But even before the end of World War I, the Gibson Girl’s popularity was fading and began to be replaced by John Held’s Flapper, a more modern and fun-loving woman.
Though best know for his cartoons of beautiful women and befuddled men, Gibson also drew cartoons that addressed social and political issues of the day. He and Mitchell were fiery, pro-American war advocates, trying to push the country into World War I as early as 1914.
When John Ames Mitchell died in 1918, Gibson bought the magazine for $1 million. By then, the publishing world had changed, encompassing a cruder and more cynical outlook. Life’s clean fun format caused it to struggle to compete. Even though Gibson managed to hire the most talented authors, artists, and editorial staff, the magazine continued to lose popularity. The New Yorker, publishing its first issue in 1925, copied much of the best of Life’s style and format, and wooed away much of its editorial and art staff. Gibson retired, turning Life over to publisher, Clair Maxwell, and treasurer, Henry Richter. By that time, the magazine had gone from a weekly to a monthly.
Gibson was the president of Society of Illustrators in the 1910s. During World War I, he headed a government agency that produced war posters. On his retirement, he began painting in oil. He died in 1944.
Charles Dana Gibson’s work is part of our digital project on the Images of Life. To see more, go to the Images of Life site. We also have a few books on Gibson such as The Gibson book: a collection of the published works of Charles Dana Gibson and we have a great collection of Life magazines with Gibson’s work.
July 16th, 2012
Our newest digital project, Images From Life, brings some of the classic cartoons, covers, and ads from the first Life magazine out from the archives. Life magazine was founded January 4, 1883 by John Ames Mitchell and Andrew Miller in a New York artist’s studio. Miller served as secretary-treasurer and managed the business side. Mitchell, an illustrator, served as its publisher. He invested in a revolutionary new printing process using zinc-coated plates which improved the reproduction of illustrations and artwork. This helped give Life an edge over its completion from the successful, established humor magazines, Judge and Puck. They hired Edward Sandford Martin, founder of the Harvard Lampoon, as the first literary editor.
Their introductory issue had the motto: “While there’s Life, there’s hope.” They let the readers know that while they would address issues of politics, fashion, society, religion, literature, etc., they would do so with “casual cheerfulness,” speaking fairly, truthfully, and decently. They also wanted to have fun.
By 1893, Life magazine decided to construct its own building. It included studio space and apartments for the artists, to create home within Life’s home. The firm of John Mervyn Carrere and Thomas Hastings created a Beaux Arts building and contracted Philip Martiny to create a sculpture for the entrance of the building. He created Winged Life, the cherub that became the symbol of Life magazine throughout its existence. The building now serves as the Herald Square Hotel. If you go to their site, you will find a lot of information on Life magazine and its artists.
Many famous illustrators and authors were contributors to Life. One of the most important was Charles Dana Gibson who sold his first contribution, an illustration of a dog outside his kennel howling at the moon, to Life for $4. Gibson’s most celebrated figure, the Gibson Girl, had her early appearances in Life in the 1890s. She soon became the nation’s feminine ideal and earned a place in history. Robert Ripley published his first cartoon in Life in 1908 and Norman Rockwell’s first cover for Life was published in 1917. Dr. Seuss submitted cartoons in the late 1920s.
After World War I, the publishing world changed, encompassing a cruder and more cynical outlook. Life’s clean fun format caused it to struggle to compete. Even though they managed to hire the most talented authors, artists, and editorial staff, the magazine continued to lose popularity. The New Yorker, publishing its first issue in 1925, copied much of the best of Life’s style and format, and wooed away much of its editorial and art staff. Though its staff tried hard to keep current, it fought to make a profit in the 1930s. Henry Luce purchased Life in 1936 for its name only.
With Images From Life, we wanted to share some of the legendary art and artists with the SCAD community. Some of the artists are well known, some are not so well known. We also wanted to share some of the advertisements in Life. They are very informative of the time period. If you want to find the collection directly, we will add a link soon, but for now, use the link on the Library’s catalog page for the Don Bluth Collection of Animation. When you get to the Bluth Collection, click on the home option at the top and this will bring you to all of the collections. Just select the Images From Life icon with the cherub. This is a fascinating look at advertising and cartooning history, and we hope you will enjoy looking at is as much as we enjoyed bringing the project to you. We have barely touched the surface of the materials that are available from Life, and are going to continue to add new images as time permits!