During World War I, Gibson led the Division of Pictorial Publicity for the Committee on Public Information, an independent government agency created by President Wilson, and recruited top illustrators to design posters and billboards to build popular support for America’s entry into the war. In his own work, Gibson radically transformed the Gibson Girl into various allegorical figures whose monumental, sometimes militant forms, stand out as powerful wartime images. His wartime posters promoted an activist strain of patriotism and his political cartoons conveyed strong anti-German commentary, support for the Allies, and pro-American involvement in the conflict. The serious, even dark tone of this work persisted in Gibson’s post-war imagery that reflected his concern about racism in the United States.
Appeal for Action
Robed in the American flag, Miss Columbia, the symbolic embodiment of the nation, fends off skeletal Death with one arm, while shielding a wounded soldier with her other. In this poster, which calls the viewer to service, Gibson pays tribute to the American Ambulance Field Service, founded by young Americans in Paris after the start of World War I. Some 2,500 volunteer ambulance drivers supported French Armies in every major battle and carried more than 500,000 wounded as well as munitions and supplies.
Women on the Home Front
With hoe in hand, a latter-day Gibson Girl shakes hands with Uncle Sam, who welcomes her into the Women’s Land Army of America (1917–1921). This civilian organization arose during World War I to provide placement of volunteers, usually women called “farmerettes,” in agricultural work to replace men in military service. Using Gibson’s illustration with the line “Until the Boys Come Back,” the New Jersey WLA produced several versions of this poster for fund-raising and recruitment campaigns.
Betrayal of Belgium
Kaiser Wilhelm II kneels before the allegorical figure of Civilization representing Belgium who grieves amid a ruined, grave-filled landscape. Published in Life, Gibson’s political cartoon reinforces an essay in the magazine that indicts the kaiser’s allowance of destructive wartime actions toward Belgium, whose neutrality was violated repeatedly by Germany as it sought to vanquish France. Although the kaiser did not formulate war policies, he could have objected to the strategic decisions made by his generals.
Envisioning Hope for Peace
Two female allegorical figures bring dramatic action to one of Gibson’s most dynamic cartoons. In the foreground, Democracy kicks the large head of Autocracy off a cliff; his helmeted head bears the caricatured features of Kaiser Wilhelm II. The caricatured head of Field Marshal Paul Von Hindenburg lies on the lower left. The winged figure of Peace approaching from the right signals hope for the end of the Great War, although Germany did not sign the Armistice until one year later.
In the wake of World War I, membership in the Ku Klux Klan grew to unprecedented levels in the 1920s, rising to exceed four million people nationally. Gibson created a compelling visual metaphor for the alarming threat this rise posed to national unity in this powerful political cartoon published in a double page spread in Life. An essay in the same volume of the magazine acknowledged troubling questions posed by racial segregation in colleges housing but voiced no definitive solution or any commentary on the Klan.