“A vast amount of rubbish is published in the name of art. A man should let his work talk for him. ” — Charles Dana Gibson

It’s his birthday today.

Old-timers will remember when my blog-design was Gibson-Girl inspired. My favorite haughty Gibson Girl was in the blog banner for years!

What a goddess. She is gorgeous and she does not give af.

The only vestige of the Gibson Girl origin-story of this site is in the email address attached to the blog.

The Gibson Girl caught my eye back when I was in high school. I like to try to re-trace my steps in terms of these long-term influences but this one I’m not sure about. I was very into the Betsy-Tacy-Tib books, particularly the four books covering the high school years – these books had illustrations, and all of the teenage girl characters were rendered with Gibson-Girl silhouettes. I used to obsess over these illustrations, the swooping curves of the skirts, the pompadours … And somehow, the “Gibson Girl wallpaper” came into my life. I had a postcard of it, and it stayed taped up beside my mirror for years. So much so that I took the wallpaper – and the Gibson Girl – for granted, and never gave it a second’s thought. I still don’t give my love of these elegant haughty ladies too much thought. I just know I have loved them all of my life. Self-projection? I don’t think so, although of course they are aspirational in a way.

Charles Dana Gibson used his wife and her sisters as his models. He was surrounded by powerful women, women who had their own world going on, separate from the men in their lives – this seemed to fascinate him. And maybe because of his close platonic/familial relationships with women, he was able to gain access to women’s private lives in a way that other men – who were caught up in pursuing said women – couldn’t. Gibson knew how women talked about men when men weren’t present. And instead of being upset about it, he made witty illustrations celebrating the power of women.

Yes, the “Gibson Girl” was an “idealization”, and idealizations are always limiting …. but damn, in his point of view women were … going to the beach, attending fancy balls, snickering about men, tormenting and toying with men – OR bored out of their minds by men … His “idealization” was not domestic, and this is KEY (maybe key, too, to why I loved them so much. Domestic partnership and domestic life wasn’t going to be my destiny either, even though I always wanted it.) His starry-eyed view of women had nothing to do with seeing them dressed up in aprons, standing in kitchens, holding babies. In fact, the Gibson Girl was the opposite. In the world of the Gibson Girl, men are weak, either puny or boorish – not at ALL worthy of the goddesses among them – in some cases they are tiny in stature … completely inconsequential. The Gibson Girl strolls on by, nose in the air. So if this is an idealization then … doesn’t sound too bad. You could certainly do way worse.

It’s also amazing to me that all of this is made with just long slashes of a pen. Look at all of the slashes making up the piles of her pompadour-ed hair! It’s so intricate-looking – and there’s a perfect illusion of the hair having shine, of picking up the light in its curves and swoops. He does it so simply, but look at the effect.

Years ago I came across a giant art book filled with Charles Dana Gibson’s illustrations – in a second-hand store, I think, maybe a flea market – I can’t remember, it’s been years and years. This was Pictures of People, first published in 1896 – my edition says “1901” on the title page. The book was in fairly good shape except for the binding and the stains on the cover. It’s HUGE. For a long time I’ve never had enough space to display it, and so it sat in a box or on a shelf … which defeats the purpose. This is a book to take some time flipping through, enjoying the illustrations. Finally now I have a free surface where I put the book, and so now I feel like it’s back in my life again. These things are meant to be shared. It’s a huge book.

Gibson’s stuff appeared in Life magazine and other publications: it was the heyday of American illustration. While he is remembered for the “Gibson Girl,” there’s a lot of variety in his work, and often the captions comment on the illustration in a way that cracks open the image, adding layers of irony, wit, illumination. (See “The Cabinet Meeting” below. That’s the most dramatic example.) His stuff is funny! It’s not just haughty ladies strolling by with parasols. There’s a lot of social commentary here. And again, it’s great to see this book since the images are so huge, you can really fall into the cross-hatching slashes making up the hair, the clothes, the skin of the illustrations. How did he DO that? It’s amazing.

Here’s a little tour of Pictures of People, proudly on display in my study area. Make sure to read the captions!

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15 Responses to “A vast amount of rubbish is published in the name of art. A man should let his work talk for him. ” — Charles Dana Gibson

  1. Melissa Sutherland says:

    Sheila, gorgeous piece. Had never seen some of these. Made my day.

  2. John T says:

    Lurker since 2014 – originally for Supernatural – first time commenter. Gibson ended up owning the pre-1936 Life magazine. Your Pictures of People is only one of a series, published – one a year – I think from 1894 to some time after 1906. They’re all in the same massive format and were the coffee table book – before coffee tables. They must have sold well and even now are not hard to come by.

    • sheila says:

      John – hey! Supernatural has brought so many interesting people to my site! Thanks for de-lurking!

      so cool in re: Pictures of People – I’m very glad to have one of them.

      // even now are not hard to come by. //

      Well, I’ve never seen them before – this was purely a random find. I know I didn’t order it – it had to have been at a second hand store or flea market – and I love tripping over things like that in random places.

  3. John T says:

    As you posted them, I would print out your Supernatural essays (they are well beyond mere recaps IMO) at work (screw them) to read at leisure. Still have a box full of them. They deserve publication.

    Gibson published at least eleven books in the Pictures of People format. eBay has a good selection from cheap to prohibitive. The first, Drawings, of which there are numerous copies, I wouldn’t recommend – at that point, he hadn’t really hit his stride.


  4. gina in alabama says:

    Charles Dana Gibson was the brother in law of Viscountess Nancy Langhorne Astor, MP, and influencer and hostess to the Cliveden Set before WWII.

  5. As God is my witness, I thought the “Gibson Girl” email moniker was a nod from you to the famed guitar manufacturing company! I stand VERY corrected! (Though honestly, I’m not sure my original assumption would be the least bit out of character if it WERE true.)

    • sheila says:

      // to the famed guitar manufacturing company //

      Lol!!! Good guess! I keep thinking I should change that blog address – I want to keep it separate from my regular email, so it’ll have to stay.

      I used to have Gibson Girls all over my site. It was a very weird design. lol

  6. Bill Wolfe says:

    I love Previous Tenants. It’s charming and somehow poignant.

  7. Jessie says:

    what a wonderful book (with a charming title!) to find! I would have also snapped it up. Gibson Girls are so alluring, fascinating. Thank you for all the close-ups – I love the woman staring dead at the camera. I would faint to be looked at like that in real life!

    I think about Gibson Girls all the time actually, because my daughter has an enormous head of very long fine hair that when released from a bun or ponytail sits atop her head exactly like a GG coif. And god knows she can laser you with a look for interrupting her, lol. It’s such a fun weird thing to be reminded of when looking at such a tiny peculiar person.

    • sheila says:

      Hi Jessie! Always so good to see you. I am pretty much totally off Twitter right now – until I can figure out a way to bear the overall mood over there – I just can’t deal. I miss the good parts of it though!

      // I would faint to be looked at like that in real life! //

      I know!! They’re so stately and mysterious.

      // sits atop her head exactly like a GG coif. And god knows she can laser you with a look for interrupting her, lol. //

      Ha!! A mini Gibson Girl!

  8. Looking at these images now (I commented a year ago!), my recent burgeoning obsession with photography has me seeing these drawings as the pen-and-ink version of street photography. He captures expressions and body language in a way that isn’t staged or posed. It’s amazing to see the people in the styles of that era looking like they were LIVING in that era, and not posed for a silver acetate plate. This art is endlessly fascinating!

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