Our fair ladies

'The American Muse' at the National Museum of American Illustration
By GREG COOK  |  July 31, 2013


Charles Dana Gibson became, perhaps, the most popular magazine illustrator in America on the cusp a great feminist moment. Women would finally win the vote with the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. And part of what made the Roaring ’20s roar was the women’s social and sexual liberation.

The “Gibson Girls” — with wan expressions across their chiseled profiles, with their wavy hair piled atop their heads, with their fresh sporty attire and wasp waists — became icons of the Gilded Age bookending the start of the 20th century. Gibson’s girls were an ideal of feminine beauty about which men fantasized and on which countless young women modeled themselves. But they also represented the old era struggling to come to grips with women’s new stature. Gibson’s women are lovely and athletic and blushing and remote objects of desire. But as Thomas Craven noted in his 1944 study, “Cartoon Cavalcade,” the joke of Gibson’s The Weaker Sex drawings was that “the square-jawed male pursuer is reduced to fatuous servility.”

These changing social mores are an undercurrent running through “The American Muse,” a modest but intriguing exhibition of 59 drawings and paintings surveying how illustrators imagined “ideal American women” between 1880 and 1930 at the National Museum of American Illustration (492 Bellevue Ave, Newport, through the end of the year).

ALLURING Fisher's 'Her Eyes Were Made To Worship.'
Harrison Fisher’s 1909 watercolor and gouache painting Her Eyes Were Made To Worship isolates the icon, depicting a young woman, in a strapless dress with her hair tied up with a bow, seductively looking back over her bare shoulder at the (assumed) male viewer. (This is an exclusively male view — the illustrators in the show are all guys.)

But change was in the air. Here Howard Pyle’s 1880 gouache painting shows three prim women trying to vote in “the good old times” as a crowd of men in tricorner hats glower or gaze with smiling derision. Walter Granville Smith’s watercolors from the 1890s show women at college or off in the woods hunting turkeys with shotguns; another Smith illustration depicts a woman walking on a beach flanked by two guys vying for her attentions.

The battle of the sexes is the central subject. In Gibson’s pen drawing Will Penelope Land the Baron?, a young woman perches on a love seat, tentatively edging closer to a chubby, bored, older fellow in a suit. To their left, a gossiping man and woman watch with their heads together. Gibson’s Stand Off shows a voluptuous woman in a flapper gown flirting with a rat-faced gentleman who raises an eyebrow and sniffs at her with disinterest. In Fisher’s 1904 watercolor and gouache I Have Won Your Love, Beverly, By the Fairest Means, a woman leans forward from a couch and holds the head of a man kneeling before her.

Gibson was a great draftsman, wielding a pen like Zorro, with crisp, charismatic, dashing strokes. And these lines could cut too. Illustrators that followed closely in his footsteps struggled to match his talent. They tend to be mushier in both their line and their wit. But, with changes in printing, they had the advantage of color.

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