The Gibson Girl

When you think of feminine ideals, what comes to mind? Venus? Twiggy? Marilyn Monroe’s hourglass curves? How about the Gibson Girl?

After the fussy bustles of the Victorian era, but before the flapper, there was the Gibson Girl. In the Edwardian era of the late 1800s and early 1900s, she was it.


Gibson Girl, Charles Dana Gibson.

In the late 19th century, Charles Dana Gibson was an art school dropout determined to make it in the art world. He was clearly talented but his drawings left a lot to be desired and editors were, by and large, not interested. He worked to improve, though, and in 1886, sold a drawing to a new magazine called Life. It was just the encouragement he needed. He continued to accept small commissions and a few years later, sold another drawing to Life.

Two drawings in one magazine made him feel almost professional. So almost professional that he set up a studio in New York City where he studied other artists and continued to hone his craft. At the same time, the way that magazines were being produced changed. Magazine printing moved from wood engraving to photomechanical engraving. Where most pen and ink drawings had details too small for engravers to capture on wood, that wasn’t the case with this new technology. Gibson’s new-found style was perfectly suited to photomechanical engraving.

Gibson Man by Charles Dana Gibson

The Gibson Man. Image via Gary W. Clark.

People loved Gibson’s style. The boldness of his pen strokes, his social commentary, and, most of all, these certain figures that became known as the “Gibson Girl” and “Gibson Man.”

In a 1910 New York Times interview, Gibson told the story of how the Gibson Girl was born. He told the interviewer, “The first time the name was used was in a story which The Century gave me to illustrate. It dealt with a certain type of girl, and in the manuscript, when it came to me, this type was called, I think, the ‘Goodrich Girl.’ I noticed that the word was written over an erasure in the manuscript wherever it occurred, but that did not impress me. Later, when — that ‘Gibson’ took the place of ‘Goodrich’ on the printed page — I saw what had been really done, I blushed. I have been blushing ever since. Let’s drop the ‘Gibson Girl.’ I don’t want to feel uncomfortable tonight.”

The Gibson Man was, like the figure above, ruggedly handsome and well-dressed. He was modeled after Gibson’s friend, war correspondent and adventurer, Richard Harding Davis. The Gibson Girl was delicately beautiful and was reportedly modeled after Gibson’s wife, Irene Langhorne Gibson, and sister, Josephine Gibson Knowlton.

Both figures were unmistakably Caucasian.

The Gibson Girl was more than an idealized version of feminity. The Gibson Girl, along with the Gibson Man, was a model of what the newly-forming middle class could strive to be. They were both attractive, happy, and youthful…and they made it all seem so attainable. Her look was natural, although she did wear corsets to give her a slim waist and voluptuous bust and hips. Her hair was often carefully piled on top of her head with tendrils framing the delicate features of her face giving her an ethereal look. It didn’t take long for women to begin copying her hairstyle and dress. Life began to imitate art.

The Gibson Girl was the “New Woman”

This woman participated in physical activities like tennis, golf, and bicycling. Gibson and other illustrators of the time promoted the idea that it was fashionable and, more importantly, socially acceptable for women to participate in physical activities. (Of course, they were often doing these activities in full skirts, long sleeves, and hats but we’re making progress here and that’s all I can ask for.)

Gibson Girls playing football

Sometimes Gibson even drew women playing football. “The Coming Game”, 1895. Image via Gary W. Clark.

The Gibson Girl was also interested in the arts. She played instruments, sang, and was often an artist herself. In several drawings, you can see a Gibson Girl sketching or painting.

She even served on juries! In the early 1900s, women very rarely served on juries, and even then, it was only if the defendant was female (rarer still). But in Gibson’s drawings, women and men served in almost equal numbers and in one drawing, seen below, the jury was all women.

This was the time of the suffragette and the fight for women’s rights. Drawings like the all-female jury sent a clear message. In the United States, jury duty and voting are inextricably linked (in some jurisdictions, registering to vote puts your name in the jury duty pool but, contrary to popular belief, you do not have to be registered to vote to be selected for jury duty.)

She’s starting to sound a bit like Barbie, is she not?

Gibson Girls The Weaker Sex by Charles Dana Gibson

“The Weaker Sex II”, 1903. Image via Library of Congress.

The Gibson Girl was more assertive with men. She was self-assured and was not going being controlled by potential suitors. The use of the hatpin above wasn’t something Gibson made up, although he does present it in a striking way, making the man look like an insect the women are going to pin to a specimen board. No, sometimes women literally used hatpins to ward off unwanted advances.

Gibson Girl The Jury Disagrees by Charles Dana Gibson

“The Jury Disagrees”, 1904. Image via Library of Congress.

While the Gibson Girl was usually seen in middle class to upper-middle class settings, she could be seen in high-society from time to time, like in the image above. Gibson loved to create satirical images, especially involving high-society. “The jury”, this time a group of upper-class women, stick their noses up at her while the men smile on. Although she’s not being wholly welcomed into their world, she seemingly handles it with grace. The Gibson Girl could navigate any social situation with ease.

She appeared in songs, clothing lines, and even wallpaper designs (a version of which you can now purchase on Amazon because of course.) Other artists tried to create their own icons of feminity but none came close to the Gibson Girl. Gibson’s image of a beautiful young woman paired with his subtle social and political commentary was a hit. But Gibson said the Gibson Girl didn’t exist. In that 1910 interview with the New York Times, he said, “There isn’t any ‘Gibson Girl,’ but there are many thousands of American girls, and for that let us all thank God.” He saw the Gibson Girl in young (white) American women.

The confident, stylish, do-it-all woman of the pre-war era paved the way for the next feminine ideal: the flapper. Of course, Gibson applied his signature style to the new “It Girl.”

Flappers by Charles Dana Gibson

Charles Dana Gibson, “Duplicates.” Image via The Red List.

Charles Gibson Struggles with Life and the Gibson Girl Fades Away

In 1920, Gibson partnered with a few other artists to purchase Life Magazine. He held the majority of the shares until 1932 when, struggling to keep the magazine afloat due to competitors, he sold it. He retired that same year and took up oil painting, a medium he dabbled in decades before. Despite being one of the most admired and imitated illustrators of this period known as the Golden Age of Illustration, it didn’t take long for him and his once-beloved Gibson Girl to fall out of public consciousness. He suffered a heart attack in 1944 and died a few weeks later. He suffered a heart attack in 1944 and died a few weeks later.

His Gibson Girl was the 20th century’s first feminine ideal. She was a new woman ushering in a new century, carving a path for women who would come after her.

All of this from an illustration. Art is a powerful thing.

Sources (contains affiliate links)

The Gibson Girl Analyzed by her Originator
The Gibson Girl’s America at the Library of Congress
Lessons from the Gibson Girl by Gary W. Clark
Charles Dana Gibson at Illustration Art Solutions
Charles Dana Gibson on The Red List
Charles Dana Gibson at the National Museum of American Illustration
The Gibson Girl and Her America: The Best Drawings by Charles Dana Gibson, Edmund Vincent Gillon
Beyond the Gibson Girl: Reimagining the American New Woman, 1895-1915 by Martha H. Patterson


Dalí and Disney: Actually, A Pretty Likely Friendship

In 2016, I got wind of an exhibit coming to The Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, FL: “Disney and Dalí: Architects of the Imagination.” I knew I couldn’t miss it and I knew I’d be in Florida during the exhibit’s time at The Dalí. In April 2016, I made the journey to St. Pete, a short detour off my planned route, to see this exhibit that I had heard wonderful things about.

And I was not disappointed. It was crowded (understandably so) but so, so cool. I had never visited The Dalí before and it’s just a gorgeous museum. “Disney and Dalí” is no longer at The Dalí but it’s still a must-see if you’re in St. Pete. This isn’t an exhibit or museum review, though. This is about the friendship between these two men. (For the sake of clarity, I’m going to refer to Walt Disney as Walt and the company Disney as, well, Disney.)

The Dali Museum

Interior of The Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, 2016. Original photo.

Nearly everything you’ll read about Walt and Dalí states that it was an unlikely friendship. I have to disagree. Of course, their styles were very different but these men were the same age (Dalí was only three years younger than Walt), both artists, and both pioneers in their fields. Walt kept abreast of trends in art and filmmaking so it is no surprise that he eventually met and formed a friendship with one of the 20th century’s most acclaimed artists. They both pushed the boundaries of their art, broke new ground, and had the kind of drive that it seems to me only another person with that kind of drive can understand. Of their friendship, Walt’s nephew, the late Roy E. Disney, once said, “It always seemed to me they were both really relentless self-promoters and they must have seen that in one another.”

And have you seen Fantasia? It’s not like Walt was unaware that animation could be surreal.

Anyway. I just don’t think we should be so surprised by this relationship.

Disney and Dali Cross Paths

By 1936, Disney had already revolutionized animation, syncing sound with animation for the first time and using three-strip Technicolor technology, which Walt had gained exclusive access to. Mickey Mouse was already a beloved figure, the company had produced its 36th Silly Symphonies short, and three years earlier, it produced the short Three Little Pigs.

By 1936, Dalí had become an internationally acclaimed artist. His first solo exhibition was in Barcelona in 1925 and an exhibition in Pittsburgh in 1928 brought him international notoriety. He completed his most famous work The Persistence of Memory (also known as “the melting clocks”) in 1931. He had visited Paris in the 1920s and returned in 1936 with his wife, Gala, to escape the Spanish Civil War.

All of this to give you a frame of reference as to where their careers were in 1936. It was that year that the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) held an exhibition titled Fantastic Art, Dada, and SurrealismNaturally, Dalí’s work was featured. But Walt also had pieces in the exhibit: two animation cels from Three Little Pigs. This was the first time their careers crossed paths and the men began to take note of each other. The next year, Dalí would travel to the US and write a letter to Andrê Bretton, the founder of Surrealism, stating, “I have come to Hollywood and am in contact with three great American Surrealists—the Marx Brothers, Cecil B. DeMille, and Walt Disney.” Dalí was eager to make an animated film, seeing animators as Surrealists.

Salvador Dali and Harpo Marx

(One) mission accomplished! Dalí sketching Harpo Marx, 1937. Photo via The Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation.

Walt Reaches out to Dali

In 1944, Walt read Dalí’s autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí. He was so entranced, he sent his copy to Dalí to ask for an autograph and suggest a collaboration between Walt Disney Studios and Dalí. Walt made this suggestion for two reasons: recently, critics had been accusing Disney of sacrificing artistry for marketability and Walt wanted to continue working with the type of innovation used by Fantasia, which had been released in 1940.

Beginning with this initial letter from Walt, the two began exchanging letters and eventually met at a Warner Brothers Studio party in 1945. World War II had delayed their collaboration (Disney was making propaganda films) but with the war’s end, they could focus on collaborating.

In 1946, Dalí began spending half of his time in Burbank, home of Walt Disney Studios. (The other half was spent in Pebble Beach, CA.) They fleshed out their ideas, wrote outlines, and created drawings. Walt chose the name “Destino” (Spanish for destiny) for the project, after the title of the ballad they chose for the short film’s score.

Salvador Dali and Destino

Dalí working on Destino at Walt Disney Studios, 1946. Photo via the Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation.

If it wasn’t apparent before, it quickly became clear that their storytelling approaches were very different. Walt’s stories relied on characters while Dalí saw characters as secondary elements, to be wrapped in symbolism. Walt described Destino as, “a simple love story—boy meets girl.” Dalí described it as, “a magical exposition of life in the labyrinth of time.” Of course he did.

While these differences might have spelled the end of any collaboration for others, the project soldiered on for nearly a year. Work on Destino came to a rather abrupt end when Walt determined that he couldn’t afford to keep Dalí on Disney’s payroll. (It’s unknown exactly how much Dalí was paid but Walt did comment that Dalí was “expensive.”) Walt also felt that Disney should move away from anthology features, which Destino had turned into. Overall, the project had sort of gotten away from them and was turning into something that neither man envisioned. There are also rumors that the men’s strong egos played a part in the project’s death but given that the men remained friends until Walt’s death, I doubt egotism was a factor. In the 1950s, they vacationed at each other’s homes in California and Spain and Walt had Dalí’s paintings on the walls of his Palm Springs home. There just wasn’t animosity there.

Salvador Dali and Walt Disney

Dalí and Walt Disney in Spain, 1957. Photo via The Walt Disney Family Museum.

Destino is Reborn

Over 50 years later, Disney released Fantasia 2000. It was the release of this film that inspired Roy Disney to resurrect Destino. Walt Disney Studios hired a team of French animators to bring Dalí’s notes and drawings to life. In 2003, Destino was finally released, nearly 60 years after its conception. 

It has elements of Disney’s animation style but Dalí’s influence is unmistakable. It was nominated for an Oscar in 2003. Of course, Walt never saw the film, passing away in 1966. Dalí lived until 1989. Unfortunately, not even Roy Disney lived to see the film. He passed away in 2001.

Destino stands as a reminder that art forms can merge and create something beautiful and unexpected. Dalí wanted to create an animated film and there was no better partner than Walt Disney.

Disney and Dali: Architects of the Imagination from The Walt Disney Family Museum
Walt Disney Timeline from The Walt Disney Family Museum
Timeline from The Dalí Museum
The Secret History of Salvador Dalí’s Disney Film by Trey Taylor
The Time Salvador Dalí Worked for Walt Disney by Mark Mancini
Destino from The Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation