Gibson was born in Roxbury, Massachusetts on September 14, 1867. He came from an old New England family, which included artists, merchants, and seamen. His interest in art showed itself early. Charles’s father often cut silhouette figures to amuse his son and it was not long before the boy began to create his own pictures. By the time he was 14, his skill with the scissors had become local legend, and he obtained an apprenticeship with Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the sculptor. Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that three-dimensional art was not Gibson’s forte. Happily, lack of success with sculpture led to experimentation with pen and pencil.
After graduation, and knowing that his family had no money for his college education, Gibson enrolled in the then relatively new and inexpensive Art Students League. In 1886, the nineteen-year-old artist, portfolio in hand, was seen sneaking his way up the back stairs to the New York City offices of the young humor magazine, Life. A tall, handsome youth, he hardly looked like the type that needed to sneak his way around anywhere. But he’d spent the entire year making the rounds of every magazine in New York and their unanimous rejection of his work had chipped away at his self-confidence. He had decided that this was it. If Life didn’t buy something, there would be one less artist struggling to sell his work.
Among the drawings in the portfolio was a sketch of a dog baying at the moon, with the legend beneath, The Moon and I. It was a spoof on the ballad of the same name from The Mikado, Gilbert and Sullivan’s popular musical. The drawing was mediocre, the technique less than masterful, but it was a funny idea, and the editor thought he saw something promising there. And so, like the proverbial happy ending, he bought it, and Charles Dana Gibson was saved from obscurity.
When assignments began to come, he took the opportunity to study in Paris, and the improvement in his drawing was readily apparent. Later in life, at the peak of his career, he again visited Europe and again returned with improvement in technique.
Gibson’s name became synonymous with the nineties, for it was he who fashioned for them a whole new standard for romantic love and resurrected chivalry, creating something that actually became a part of the real world he lived in. In doing so, he gave the world that elusive creature aloof but tender, naughty but adorable, and always, always beautiful—the Gibson Girl.
The Gibson Girl was not one but many types of girls—each imbued with an ideal refinement that most women could secretly identify with and all men admire. Gibson Girls blossomed everywhere—in popular songs, on banners, pillowcases, even silver spoons, and Gibson’s drawings were carefully studied and copied for the latest hair styling and costume. Although those transient styles have long ago disappeared, Gibson’s work has a validity that keeps his pictures from being dated. He recorded his times objectively enough for us to see the frailties of the social values, yet with a warmth and sympathy that helps us to understand and respect them.
Gibson’s work first appeared in the old Life magazine and in 1904, a contract with Collier’s Weekly made him the highest paid illustrator in America. Collections of his drawings appeared periodically in a series of books that ran into many editions. As president of the Society of Illustrators during World War 1 he served as head of the Division of Pictorial Publicity under the Federal committee of Public Information. Under its direction, some illustrators were sent overseas as war correspondents, others helped in the preparation of posters, billboards, illustrations and other forms of publicity on behalf of the war effort.
Gibson was not particularly political, and did not often portray political situations in his cartoons; his forte was the “social set” and “high society” at which he continually poked fun. His greatest period of popularity lasted until 1910, although he continued to be prolific during the First World War and the early 1920s.
Gibson’s line and technique are still studied by serious illustrators. His bold lines and use of contrast allowed him to “paint” pictures with no more than white paper and black ink. Character, tone and humor are reflected in a style that was often emulated by the popular artists of his day.
The ability to produce original pen and ink work was a new technique in the 1880s when Gibson first arrived on the scene. Up to that time, line artists produced the drawings that were then cut into wood or metal by engravers. Eliminating the “middle man” gave the artist a greater control and enhanced his or her ability to communicate with the reader.