Charles Dana Gibson (1867-1944)
Story Ever Told,
Ink over graphite on illustration board
Published in Collier's Weekly, August 13, 1910 (7)
Arresting and gorgeous, icons
of feminine beauty from America's "golden age of illustration" (1880-1920s)
dazzled viewers with an intensity, vividness and variety that
captivate us today. The creation in the 1890s of the "Gibson
Girl" by Charles Dana Gibson (1867-1944) began a decades-long
fascination with idealized types of feminine beauty in America.
Other gifted illustrators of the era such as Coles Phillips
(1880-1927), Wladyslaw Benda (1873-1948), Nell Brinkley (1886-1944),
and John Held, Jr., (1888-1958) fashioned diverse portrayals
of idealized American womanhood that mirrored changing standards
of beauty. More fundamentally, however, this popular art highlighted
transformations in women's roles in the late nineteenth and
early twentieth centuries. During what historians call the
era of the "new woman," increasing numbers of women pursued
higher education, romance, marriage, leisure activities, and
a sense of individuality with greater independence. This exhibition
features drawings selected from outstanding recent acquisitions
and graphic art in the Library's Cabinet of American Illustration
and the Swann Collection of Caricature and Cartoon.
The Gibson Girl first appeared in Life Magazine and
rapidly set a standard for feminine beauty that endured for
two decades. Gibson drew his tall, narrow-waisted ideal in
black and white, portraying her as a multi-faceted type, always
at ease and fashionable. He depicted her as an equal, sometimes
teasing companion to men and highlighted her interests or talents,
such as violin playing in The Sweetest Story Ever Told, ca.
1910. Gibson's influence on fellow artists can be seen in the
stately beauty in A Quick Change, ca. 1901 by Charlotte
Harding (1873-1951). Other artists created rival icons. Coles
Phillips, for example, developed his "Fade-away Girl" through
innovative use of negative space--his full figured beauties
blend into backgrounds of colorful, tightly composed designs
that graced the covers of Life and Good Housekeeping in
the early 1900s. Typically involved in domestic tasks or appraising
suitors' gifts as in Know All Men by These Presents,
1910, the "Phillips Girl" projected a warm allure that differed
from the Gibson Girl's winsome reserve. Neither seriously challenged
the patriarchal tradition of separate spheres--public and professional
for men, private and domestic for women.
The influence of Gibson's and Phillip's romantic ideals waned
markedly as the American public and artistic communities were
introduced to modern European and American art at the time
of the Armory Show of 1913 in New York City. American society
also became increasingly urban as cities burgeoned in size.
Modernist styles and urbanism influenced younger artists such
as Ethel Plummer (1888-1936) and Rita Senger (active 1915-1930s)
as they drew new types of beauties. Plummer drew her young
women as slim silhouettes, clad in tighter, formfitting clothing.
Shown in an urban setting, they convey a consciousness of themselves
as fashionable beings in their attitudes and communicate a
poise and confidence that became hallmarks of the modern woman.
Rita Senger's lithe beauty dancing on a shore (ca. 1916) embodied
a freedom based on insistent individuality. Compared with their
predecessors, Plummer's and Senger's figures move freely in
more public, open spaces. Both artists also depicted their
slender beauties as stylish, flattened figures, defined by
sophisticated use of line, color, and pattern in drawings that
are contemporary with the introduction of modernist styles.
Their work possesses a bold, modern simplicity that was prized
by Vanity Fair and Vogue. Images from magazine
covers, short-story illustrations, and advertisements exerted
widespread influence, for readers sought not only entertainment
and enlightenment from these visual sources, but also regarded
them as examples to be admired and imitated.
Nell Brinkley (1886-1944)
Golden Eyes with Uncle Sam (dog), ca.
Watercolor, ink, gouache, and opaque white over graphite under drawing on illustration
Swann Fund purchase (4)
During the World War I era, "new women" sought equality and
opportunity through more active roles in the public realm.
Nell Brinkley stood out during this period as a female pioneer
in the field of illustration--a woman artist who created the "Brinkley
Girl," a highly popular icon. She drew active idealistic young
women in illustrations for newspaper feature stories that she
wrote. "Golden Eyes," a World War I heroine who promoted the
sale of Liberty Bonds and supported overseas war efforts, emerged
as one of Brinkley's most memorable creations. In her fine-lined
Art Nouveau manner, Brinkley portrayed her heroine as a dynamic,
windblown symbol of women's active patriotism.
John Held, Jr.'s creation, the flirtatious, flippant flapper,
exemplified a revolutionary type of beauty. He delineated her
as a stylish, carefree, and boyishly slender figure, capturing
her assertive, pleasure-seeking nature in a lively, refined
style. Held's flapper pervaded popular culture, appearing in Life,
Judge, Liberty, College Humor, The New Yorker, and Harper's
Bazaar. The flapper's dynamic open outline departed radically
from Gibson's calm, long-haired ideal. Demure in dress and
manner, the Gibson Girl originated from the more structured,
socially choreographed milieu of the Gilded Age. In comparison,
the Jazz Age icon, with her scanty clothing, short hair, and
forward ways, appeared brazen. She interacted directly and
boldly with men, whether dancing or joining them in sports,
sometimes with humorous, witty effect as seen in The Girl
Who Gave Him the Cold Shoulder, ca. 1925.
Wladyslaw Benda, Georges Lepape (1887-1971), and Russell Patterson
(1893-1977) skillfully incorporated elements of glamour and
current fashion into their compelling visions of beauty in
the late 1910s-1920s. Fashion and glamour intertwined as women
avidly followed the latest trends in clothing, jewelry, and
cosmetics through popular art. Polish-born Benda, working in
charcoal and watercolor, created the "Benda Girl," whose flawless
features and bejeweled form reflected the glamourous taste
of the time. The strengths of his distinctive style--skillful
modeling of forms, attention to detail, and use of strong color--served
him well in drawing the vivid images that adorned the covers
and pages of Hearst's International Magazine, Cosmopolitan, and Liberty.
In contrast with Benda, Lepape and Patterson rendered their
beauties as stylized figures who indulge in smoking, a pleasure
seen as mildly risqué and glamourous. Both make minimal
use of modeling and depend heavily on the graphic power of
elegant, outlined forms, linear patterns of clothing and trailing
smoke to compose strongly decorative, eye-catching designs.
Jaro Fabry (1912-1953) employed a modernist approach related
to Held's and Patterson's beauties in creating his drawing
of Katherine Hepburn for the cover of Cinema Arts.
Applying watercolor with loose, free brushwork, Fabry achieves
a fresh, spontaneous portrayal of Hepburn. Completely all-American,
she is a fitting choice for an icon. She personifies a singular,
individual beauty, yet projects star quality and universal
These artist's images reveal change and variety in women's
roles in society as seen in Gibson's violin player, the heroic
Brinkley Girl, Held's flapper, Patterson's smoker, and the
actress Hepburn. They also reflect significant shifts in manners
and mores. Far from superficial and solely concerned with surface
beauty, these icons illuminate the complex trajectory traced
by the evolution of the modern woman.
Martha H. Kennedy, Exhibition Curator