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.
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 appeal.
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