Where Yesterday Meets Tomorrow
A couple issues back, we promised a series of articles on prominent American Illustrators. It's now obvious that, at our current pace, if we're to cover the field one artist at a time, we'll still be writing article when the 22nd Century comes a calling, so we'll step up the pace and cover three of the best of the early 20th Century illustrators, all of whom won their fame with the same theme - Defining the American Beauty.
Until about 1900 printed illustration was largely limited to line drawings painstakingly carved onto wood blocks. This was a slow, expensive, and sometimes unsuccessful means of getting illustrations into books and magazines. During the 1890s, a new technique using photography became popular and allowed the development of color printing. Once color became feasible, it quickly drove out most of the "line artists." The public was infatuated with the new color printing. A good illustrated cover on a magazine could double the circulation of an issue, and nothing sold better than a pretty face! Publishers began a frantic search for good artists. The public began to recognize the styles of different illustrators and actively seek them out. Thus began the Golden Age of Illustration. Three of its initial superstars were Charles Dana Gibson, Harrison Fisher, and Howard Chandler Christy.
All three illustrators were depicting the prototypical American Woman - the ideal woman for the new century. She was strong, self-confidant, self- reliant. She was as much at home driving one of those newfangled horseless buggies, graduating from college, or playing golf as she was at the Society Ball or in the kitchen. One commentator has said she was "popular with the males because of her charm while young women liked her because she embodied their dreams of emancipation." Christy described her "as a woman with tremendous self-respect."
Charles Dana Gibson is a transitional figure. He was one of the greatest of the old school line drawing artists. At the same time, in his subject matter, he set the tone and theme for the new age of illustration. He became the first of the superstar illustrators while continuing to practice the art of pen and ink line drawing.
He began his career while the line drawing was the only available medium for illustration. In the mid 1890s he sold his first illustrations to the original Life, an illustrated humor magazine. Despite the limitations of the line drawing medium, he developed a very distinctive style which made his work stand apart from the countless other drawings that filled the magazines.
He quickly became famous for his images of beautiful women. His women were not mere peripheral decorations hovering around the edges of the picture. They were the very heart of the image. They were what the picture was all about. And they were beautiful! His illustrations gave name to the feminine ideal of the time, "The Gibson Girl."
Gibson's drawings display great technical skill. In a way, they show an impressionistic minimalist style. Every line that is necessary is meticulously executed; not a single line that is unnecessary is added to clutter the image. The content of his images is unique as well. He was not merely drawing humorous illustrations of pretty girls; he was drawing social commentary, gently exposing the foibles of society. In a way, he is a kinder gentler 20th Century Hogarth.
By about 1900 Gibson had become the premier illustrator of the era and by far the highest paid. In 1904 Colliers Weekly paid him $100,000 for one hundred illustrations to be produced over 4 years. He was also paid $50,000 for 52 double page spreads in one year. These were princely sums. His work was collected and issued in 11 volumes between 1896 and 1905 with such titles as The Education of Mr. Pipp and A Widow and Her Friends. In 1906 the 11 volumes were then re-issued as The Gibson Book in two volumes. Many of his illustrations were published as prints suitable for framing. His work jumped across mediums, appearing, for instance, on a series of English plates issued by Royal Doulton in the 1920s.
Gibson's prime was from the late 1890s until about 1910. After 1910, his line drawing style seemed too outdated and the public taste had moved on from the Gibson Girl to the Christy Girl and the Fisher Girl. During WWI Gibson headed up the War Poster program. After the war he acquired ownership of the original Life magazine. When that magazine succumbed in 1936, he sold the title to Henry Luce who used it as the title for the photo-journalism magazine he was about to launch. Gibson retired and concentrated on painting and drawing until his death in 1944.
Today, his work is highly collected. The individual volumes, in excellent condition, are worth about $100 to $150 each. The two volume reissue in excellent condition is worth $175 to $250. Individual prints published during his illustrating career are worth about $50 to $75 if they're in good condition in a nice period frame. You also find some framed pages from the magazines. If these were torn from the magazine and framed at the time they were issued, are in good condition, and have a nice period frame, they are worth $25 to $35. Early magazines with Gibson illustrations are worth about $10 to $15 each in good condition. You will also find "tear sheets" where some unscrupulous "tearorist" has destroyed a magazine or book to try to peddle the individual pages for a higher price than the book or magazine would command by itself. These pages are worth no more than a few dollars (and should not be purchased on principle). The Royal Doulton plates are worth about $50 to $75 each.
Fisher was born in Brooklyn NY but his family soon moved to California. His father was also an artist and gave Harrison his early training. By 16, Fisher was enrolled in formal art programs and was producing illustrations for California newspapers.
In 1897 he persuaded the Hearst newspaper chain to transfer him to the New York American. Once in New York, he was quickly hired by Puck, a humor magazine, to do interior illustrations. He also illustrated numerous books and began to get an occasional commission for a magazine cover including a number of Saturday Evening Post covers. (He eventually did over 80 covers for SEP.) Within a few years he was also doing covers for Ladies Home Journal and Cosmopolitan. Fisher's subject matter was always "the American Beauty." His popularity was growing steadily. In 1907 he published a collection of his illustrations in The Harrison Fisher Book which became an immediate best seller and solidified is pre-eminent position as the chief illustrator of Beautiful Women. Newspapers and magazines declared him the official arbiter of American Beauty and thousands of women sent pictures and sought to become models for his illustrations. He played up to all the publicity, granting interviews and announcing that he would go west on a search for the true American Beauty. He found her in California, provoking outrage and much publicity in New York, and brought her back east with much fanfare. She modeled for him for a few weeks, then quit to join a Vaudeville show, and soon married a millionaire! But amidst all the publicity, the "Fisher Girl" supplanted the "Gibson Girl" as the popular definition of Beauty.
Fisher continued producing magazine covers but gradually grew tired of painting one pretty face after another. He expressed a desire to paint children and old women. He remained active until about 1915, gradually losing his pre-eminent role to other illustrators such as Christy. Eventually, Fisher went into semi-retirement in California, continuing to do only Cosmopolitan covers. He painted almost every Cosmo cover between 1913 and 1934 when he died.
He published a number of different volumes such as A Dream of Fair Women, Harrison Fisher's American Beauties, and A Garden of Girls. He also illustrated numerous novels and epic poems, the most ambitious of which is Hiawatha, filled not with pretty girls but with Noble Savages. His illustrations were used on many postcards which are highly collectible. Perhaps the most famous is a series of 6 cards, frequently framed in a set, titled The Six Great Moments in a Girl's Life. Individual prints intended for framing were issued. And there are hundreds of magazines with his covers or interior illustrations.
Harrison Fisher's reputation is growing again today. At least three books on Fisher have been released in recent months. Interest will likely continue to grow and prices may increase rapidly. If you have any Fisher items, especially the art books, research carefully before selling. At present, first editions of his art books, in excellent condition, are worth from $200 to $1000. Many of them are very rare titles. Books by others that he illustrated are worth from $10 to $35 each (with the Grosset & Dunlap reprints at the low end and books with multiple illustrations on the high end.) The Hiawatha volume is worth $100 to $150. Individual prints published during his illustrating career in good condition in a nice period frame are worth about $75 to $100. The post card sets, in a nice period frame, are worth $100 to $150 each. Fframed magazine covers, if they were framed at the time they were issued, are in good condition, and have a nice period frame, are worth $25 to $35. Covers recently torn from magazines by "tearorist" are worth no more than a few dollars (Don't buy them! Make the *!?x#^ who tore it out of the magazine eat it!) Individual postcards are typically worth $10 to $20 but a some are worth several hundred dollars. Intact magazines with Fisher covers are worth $20 to $30 each.
Howard Chandler Christy was born in rural Ohio. He showed great artistic ability at a young age so in 1890 his parents sent him to New York City to study art. He recognized that the technological changes just beginning to occur in printing were creating great opportunity for painter-illustrators and deliberately planned a career capitalizing on those changes. His first work was as illustrator for a book published by a friend. It was well enough received that he began to secure commissions for other book illustrations. By 1898 he was well established. When the Spanish American War broke out he was hired by Scribner's as a war correspondent. He traveled with the Rough Riders illustrating for Scribner's, Leslie's, Harper's and The Century. One illustration, showing a beautiful girl and titled "The Soldiers Dream" which was published in Scribner's and caused a sensation. It launched his career as an illustrator of beautiful women. Many of his cover illustrations were done for McClure's. By 1906 he published two books of illustrations, The Christy Girl, and The American Girl.
These books actually preceded Harrison Fisher's similar books by several years but Fisher came to be the pre-eminent definer of the American girl. This was due partly to Fisher's active publicity "stunts" and partly because Christy was never as singular in his subject matter. While Fisher was wishing for the opportunity to paint children and old women, Christy was doing so. Perhaps because he had an established career as an illustrator before his "Christy Girl" became so popular, he continued to receive commissions to illustrate a much broader range of subjects than did Fisher. Among the beautiful Christy illustrated books of the era where The Lady of the Lake, published in 1910; Several James Whitcomb Riley poetry books such as An Old Sweetheart of Mine and Home Again with Me; and The Courtship of Miles Standish.
In later years, he taught art and received commissions to paint murals including a 20 foot by 30 foot mural in the Rotunda of the Capital in Washington titled "The Signing of the Constitution." It is meticulously researched, even to the point of concealing the faces of the two signers for whom he could not find any authenticated portraits. He died in 1952.
His art books, in excellent condition, are worth anywhere from $50 to $200 depending on the number of color illustrations and the desirability of the title. The Riley books will be on the lower end of the price range. Books by others that he illustrated are worth from $10 to $35 each (with the Grosset & Dunlap reprints at the low end and books with multiple illustrations on the high end.) The Lady of the Lake and the Miles Standish volumes are worth $100 to $150. Individual prints in good condition in a nice period frame are worth about $75 to $100. Framed magazine covers, if period, in good condition, and in a nice period frame, are worth $25 to $35. Covers recently torn from magazines are almost worthless.
The Gibson Girl, the Fisher Girl, and the Christy Girl did truly define the American ideal of beauty for an entire generation. Gibson came a little early; his Beauties were the young socialites of the Gilded Age still ensnared in 19th century activities but already exhibiting the self-confidence, intelligence, and independence that were the essence of the New Woman. Christy and Fisher brought this New Woman to full realization until, by the mid 1920s, she seemed so passe that the world moved on to other infatuations.
This emancipated, active, educated, self-confident young woman was not the creation of a few progressive minded illustrators. She was the creation of the America public. She possessed the traits that the public wanted to see in the Ideal American Woman. These artists attained their immense success because their American Beauties were in resonance with the ideal of the American Public. American society was not seeking to keep women trapped in drudgery - it was opening itself to them. It is no coincidence that the woman's suffrage movement was contemporaneous with the Gibson, Fisher, and Christy girls and that it's triumph in 1919 came at the peak of the popularity of the woman these illustrators glorified.
A note about pricing: The prices cited in this article are estimates. Guides that purport to cite a specific dollar value are full of malarkey. Prices vary with every transaction because the people involved and the condition of the item vary. The prices we're citing are retail prices. The price range is the range we believe a diligent collector can buy the item for and a serious dealer can sell the item for in a reasonable period of time. You can certainly find higher prices being asked but you may not find many buyers at higher levels. Prices cited are for items in "very good" to "fine" condition. Value falls off rapidly for injured items and will be substantially higher for mint items and items with nice dust jackets.
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