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Gibson, Charles Dana

Charles Dana Gibson

Examples of images of the Gibson Girl

Charles Dana Gibson "had a lot to reveal about the characters of his era and had more than a little to do with the shaping of it."
—Illustrator Henry Pitz, 1969

Before the advent of television and movies, Americans got their fashion inspiration from magazines. Illustrators of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (approximately 1878–1913) influenced popular fashions much as movie stars and celebrities do in the twenty-first century.

No illustrator had more influence at the turn of the century than Charles Dana Gibson (1867–1944). While Gibson endured a childhood illness that kept him bedridden, Gibson's father taught him how to make silhouettes (outlined shapes of an image, usually dark against a light background) of people and animals. Young Gibson became so skilled that he entered his silhouettes in an exhibition at age twelve and gained recognition as an artist.

Gibson spent his first two years of high school at the Art Students League in the Manhattan section of New York City. When tuition payments became impossible for Gibson's parents, the young student quit school and looked for work as an artist. Jobs were not easy to come by, and it took months before he sold his first drawing. Finally, he sold a sketch of a small dog, chained to his doghouse and howling at the moon, for $4 to LIFE magazine in 1886. It was the first sale of many to LIFE; Gibson maintained a professional relationship with the popular magazine for thirty years.

Gibson was a contributing artist for all the major New York publications by 1890: Harper's Monthly, The Century, and Weekly Bazaar. The fashionable creation that was to become known as the Gibson Girl first appeared in print in the 1894 book titled Drawings. Soon, she graced the pages of LIFE, and her creator was instantly proclaimed a star. Gibson became the most eligible bachelor in town, thanks to the fame brought upon him by the Gibson Girl.

LIFE Magazine: A Cultural Icon

John Ames Mitchell (1845–1918) was a native New Yorker with a dream. An architect who dabbled in illustrating, Mitchell took his hobby—and a life savings of $10,000—and founded LIFE magazine, a forum for art, humor, and literature.

The first issue of LIFE appeared on newsstands in January 1883. Sales were somewhat slow initially, as the magazine was the first of its kind, and social values of the day did not allow "respectable" families to have joke books lying about the house. As word spread that the magazine had more to offer than humor, sales increased.

By 1894, it was clear that LIFE would continue to be published. Mitchell had an office building constructed in downtown New York. The building housed offices on the lower floor, apartments on the upper floors. Mitchell recognized the unpredictable work habits of his artistic staff and wanted to provide them with a place where they could both work and live. Charles Dana Gibson's Gibson Girl illustrations were born in the offices of this building. The building still stands in the twenty-first century but is now the Herald Square Hotel.

In 1936, the popularity of the magazine prompted it to be published weekly, rather than monthly. This continued for the next thirty-six years. Mitchell hired some of the most famous artists of his day, including Norman Rockwell (1894–1978) and Maxfield Parrish (1870–1966). LIFE became the most popular magazine of the early twentieth century and is considered the standard for photo-journalism periodicals.

Although it ceased production in 1972, LIFE returned in 1978 as a monthly publication, a schedule it adhered to until 2000. At that time, it became a weekend newsmagazine that was included in major newspapers throughout the United States.

What made the Gibson Girl so attractive to the American public? Gibson called her "the American Girl to all the world." He intended her to represent the spirit of the New Woman, one who enjoyed the urban (city) life but who managed to maintain her class and self-confidence. She was independent, yet feminine; strong, yet soft. She dated, but was expected to marry; played sports, but did not sweat. By featuring the Gibson Girl in scenes depicting social situations involving money, love, and manners, the illustrator created an icon (symbol) that showed the courage of his era's women to move beyond traditional roles while at the same time safeguarded their morals and values. And always, he drew his Gibson Girl with a twinkle in her eye.

So that his Girl would not be lonely, Gibson created the Gibson Man to keep her company. Handsome, respectful, romantic, the Gibson Man was clearly in awe of his companion. Gibson the artist made it known, through his illustrations, that he considered women the superior sex, yet he did so without offending men. He used subtle facial expressions to convey his message, and the captions he wrote for his illustrations, though brief, created an entire story for each scene.

Things to remember while looking
at the Gibson Girl images:

  • The Gibson Girl was published in the most widely read magazines of the day. She embodied the spirit of the modern woman and was the first supermodel to gain international recognition. She was considered the ideal American woman.
  • Gibson was born into a class of society that respected traditional values. His Gibson Girl creation, though spirited and independent, was nonthreatening because she did not offend the values of any of the social classes. She may have been employed out side the home, but she was not politically active. She may have participated in ladylike sports such as tennis, golf, or bicycling, but America never saw her break a sweat. She had manners, but was not particularly well educated. The Gibson Girl was a woman who could fit into any social class with ease.
  • Gibson's illustrations were symbolic of the changing nature of class structure in America at the turn of the century. Initially, only working-class women wore the shirtwaist (button-down shirt with high collar and cuffs). With the help of the Gibson Girl, who always wore the shirtwaist with a long, flowing skirt, the shirtwaist became stylish for upper-class women as well. This trend contrasted directly with the rigidity of class structure in England, where fashion trends were always dictated by the upper class.

Evelyn Nesbit: Model of a Tragedy

Although not the original Gibson Girl, one Gibson Girl model is more famous than all the rest. Evelyn Nesbit (1885–1967) was sixteen years old when Charles Dana Gibson first saw her in photos. Soon, Nesbit was modeling for him. One of his most recognizable and famous illustrations, titled The Question Mark, used Nesbit as the model.

Nesbit was a beauty: thin, with long, thick hair and a wistful expression. Already well known throughout New York for her looks, the model's popularity only increased when she posed in 1901 for Gibson.

Architect Stanford White (1853–1906) was one of many to fall under Nesbit's spell. Nesbit and the more senior White—thirty years separated them—became sexually involved, despite the fact that White was married. White took the model to one of his many hideaways in the city, where he had a large swing for his pretty visitors. In time, Nesbit would become known throughout the world as "the girl in the red velvet swing."

The relationship with White lasted for about a year. During that time, Nesbit met Pittsburgh millionaire Harry Kendall Thaw (1871–1947). Thaw was more than a decade older than Nesbit. He was determined to make the model his bride, and though she initially refused his advances and gifts, she must have realized her affair with White, as well as her low social standing as a model, would prevent her from receiving many choice marriage offers. Thaw and Nesbit married when she was twenty-one. She shared with her new husband stories of her relationship with White, painting the architect as a great seducer of her innocence. Thaw, a paranoid (irrationally distrustful) drug addict with a history of violence, believed White had forced his wife into a sexual relationship.

On June 25, 1906, Thaw and Nesbit were enjoying a rooftop performance of a musical comedy at Madison Square Garden. White and a companion were there as well. Just before the closing act, Thaw approached White's table and murdered him with a single shot between the eyes. The event immediately became known as "the murder of the century."

No murder had ever received more press. Many believed Thaw had every right to shoot White, whose morals did not match the standards of the day. The focus of the case, naturally, was on Nesbit. She painted White in an unfavorable light while proclaiming her husband to be the most gentle, caring man she had ever met. She neglected to tell them that Thaw had whipped her when she defied him, or that he had beat up hotel bellhops when they came to his room. At the request (and unfulfilled promise of $1 million) of Thaw's mother, Nesbit swore under oath that her husband was not a monster.

More than a year later, Thaw was found not guilty of murder by reason of insanity and sentenced to life in an asylum. He rode to his new home in a private train car filled with friends, fine food, and champagne. He soon escaped to Canada, only to be returned to an American jail. By that time, however, he was a sort of folk hero to many Americans and was eventually declared sane and set free. The first thing he did upon release was file for divorce from Nesbit. Thaw maintained a lavish lifestyle marked by fits of rage and died at the age of seventy-six. Nesbit bore a son during Thaw's confinement, but her husband refused to accept the child as his own. Forever seen as a major player in an immoral scandal, Nesbit died an alcoholic and a drug addict at the age of eighty-one.

  • Gibson took a risk in creating his Girl. At a time when America was struggling to accept any ideas outside of traditional values and norms, the illustrator publicly admired women not only for their physical beauty (as was customary), but also for their intelligence, cunning, and ability to break out of the mold into which all women of the Gilded Age and early Progressive Era were born. Gibson's public admiration allowed other men to follow suit, and the Gibson Girl helped women break free of social expectations that had for centuries repressed them.
  • By never naming his creation, Gibson assured her national appeal. She could be—and was—any woman.

Examples of the Gibson Girl images

What happened next …

The Gibson Girl brought her creator instant fame throughout the world. Charles Dana Gibson became the highest-paid illustrator of his time, and his Gibson Girl drawings set the standard for female beauty, fashion, and morality for the next twenty years.

The Gibson Girl became a popular cultural icon, and her image was reproduced on everything from wallpaper to ashtrays, umbrella stands to pillowcases to paper dolls. Americans ate off Gibson Girl plates atop Gibson Girl tablecloths. Millions of American women demanded Gibson Girl hair-styles at the beauty salon. Songs and plays were written, praising the virtues and beauty of the popular American idol.

Imitator illustrators at the turn of the century tried to get in on the American Girl theme, and Gibson Girl look-alikes began popping up throughout magazines across the country. James Montgomery Flagg (1877–1960) was the artist who most obviously copied Gibson's style. Flagg staked a claim in American history books for an illustration all his own in 1916 with a military recruiting poster featuring Uncle Sam that called all eligible men to battle in World War I (1914–18).

Gibson became the most sought-after illustrator of the era. Magazines competed to get him to contract with them and give them exclusive rights to the Gibson Girl. Gibson never severed his ties with LIFE, however. After World War I and LIFE founder John Mitchell's death, he took over as editor of the magazine. Now that he no longer had to worry about making enough money to pay the bills, Gibson had time to focus on a favorite hobby: oil painting. His paintings depicted his surroundings of family and home in Maine. Although they never enjoyed the popularity of the Gibson Girl, they were critically acclaimed. Gibson died in 1944.

By the time the war was over, a new image of the American woman appeared for a new cultural era, the Roaring Twenties (the third decade of the twentieth century). The Gibson Girl was no longer in fashion; the flapper embodied a new, daring female spirit, one focused on having fun. Long hair, flowing skirts, and an air of mystery gave way to bobbed hair, short dresses, and cigarettes. The flapper defied convention and spent her free time dancing, drinking and smoking, and turning her back on America's traditional social values.

The Gibson Girl remains, in the twenty-first century, a symbol for a period in history known as the Gay 90s, when hope and ideals of freedom kept America moving forward. She is memorialized in art museum collections and on postcards. A commemorative postage stamp featuring her image was issued in 1998.

Did you know …

  • The Gibson Girl had an "hourglass" figure, so-called for its resemblance to a glass instrument used to tell time—narrow in the middle and wider at the ends. The hourglass style was achieved using a corset, which was a stiff undergarment that laced up the back. The tighter the corset was laced, the smaller a woman's waist would appear. The first corsets were made of steel. Corsets worn during the Gibson Girl era were somewhat slightly more flexible and allowed a woman to bend at the waist.
  • Dana Charles Gibson's women were taller than any other women shown in magazine illustrations of the day. This gave them a more confident, proud look.
  • Gibson's illustrations were in such high demand that he made as much as $50,000 for fifty-two pen-and-ink drawings at the turn of the century.
  • In the early 1900s, it was understood that middle-class men should spend their time making money. Their wives were expected to appear more fashionable and sophisticated than women of the lower, working class. Styles and dress became direct reflections of conspicuous consumerism (spending more money for products than necessary because one had more to spend).
  • Prior to the 1900s, all clothing was tailor-made to fit a person's unique body shape and measurements. There were no shopping malls, or even general stores, at which to purchase a dress or a shirt off a rack.
  • In World War II (1939–45), the Gibson Girl emergency radio transmitter was placed in life rafts in the hope that downed airmen could use it to signal for help. The radio transmitted its signal along a wire connected to an antenna on a kite. The radio was shaped like an hourglass, just like the Gibson Girl's figure.

Consider the following …

  • How did World War I influence America's shift in ideals and values as portrayed by the Gibson Girl and then the flapper?
  • If you were to invent an "ideal woman" for the modern era, what would she look like? What values would she represent?
  • How is social class and age reflected in women's clothing and style?

For More Information


Gibson, Charles Dana. The Gibson Girl and Her America: The Best Drawings. New York: Dover Publications, 1969.


"A Charles Dana Gibson 'LIFE Magazine' Gallery." The Herald Square Hotel. (accessed on August 14, 2006).

"Drawing from Life." Smithsonian Institution Libraries. (accessed on August 14, 2006).

"The Gibson Girl: The Ideal Woman of the Early 1900s." Eyewitness to History. (accessed on August 14, 2006).

Gibson-Girls. (accessed on August 14, 2006).

Library of Congress. American Beauties: Drawings from the Golden Age of Illustration. (accessed on August 14, 2006).

LIFE. (accessed on August 14, 2006).

PBS. "Murder of the Century." American Experience. (accessed on August 14, 2006).

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