|New Perspectives on Illustration is an engaging weekly series of essays by graduate illustration students at MICA, the Maryland Institute College of Art. Curators Stephanie Plunkett and Joyce K. Schiller have the pleasure of teaching a MICA course exploring the artistic and cultural underpinnings of published imagery through history, and we are pleased to present the findings of our talented students in this weekly blog.Gibson and Cassat: Depicting the New Woman by Seo Kim explores the role of painter Mary Cassatt and illustrator Charles Dana Gibson in establishing the image of the “new” woman at the turn of the twentieth century.
Gibson and Cassatt: Depicting the New Woman
By Seo Kim
Early twentieth century images and illustrations often depicted women as the subject to represent urban life and capitalist culture. In the face of modernity, women were the “metaphorical figure, allegorizing the city and modern life itself.” (1) During this time women were often objectified as an accessory to men, representing simply the latest fashion, hairstyle or as beautiful objects. The unprecedented number of periodicals being published during this period allowed inauthentic or stereotypic images of women to be accepted as the norm. In the fine art world, American impressionist painter Mary Cassatt initiated the profound beginnings in recreating the image of the “new” women, while Charles Dana Gibson invented his famous ‘Gibson Girls’ to represent American women as a unique, independent and strong individual. Mary Cassatt introduced the modern subject of a women’s world from a woman’s perspective, but she did not conform to standard male images of women. Gibson represented women as independent public people, and embodied them in social and psychological dimensions, giving them intellect, identity and character.
Charles Dana Gibson was born in Roxbury, Massachusetts and started his artistic career after he finished his studies at the Art Students League in New York. Just after three years of working in America, he moved to Paris to enroll as one of the students at Julien’s.(2) During his travels he refined his methods in recording key characteristics of people he encountered, which he became well known for later in his satirical work. Two decades earlier, Mary Cassatt was born in Allegheny City, the twin city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. At the age of fifteen, she began her studies in art at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art even though her family objected to her becoming a professional artist. Her superior economic standing and the support from her parents enabled her to travel abroad beginning at an early age. After unsuccessful submissions to the Salon in Paris, she accepted an invitation to work with the group of independent artists known as the Impressionists. With the impressionist group, she was finally able to build her oeuvre, art that radically re-conceptualized images of women. Gibson also had a breaking point in his career. Back in America, he caught the attention of leading Eastern publishers who saw interest in his “interpretation in line of the social life of the higher class” and this specialty soon gave him a certain precedence, so that his drawings became vogue.(3)
Gibson was shrewd in seeing the value of this particular field, and invented the “Gibson Girl” who optimized what he saw as the perfect American woman. Unlike others in the field who showcased women as accessories, he perfected his Gibson girl to be confident, independent and resilient. As Susan E. Meyer describes the Gibson girl, “she was taller than other women currently seen in the magazines. Infinitely more spirited and independent, yet altogether feminine. She appeared in a stiff shirtwaist, her soft hair piled in to a chignon, topped by a big plumed hat. Her flowing skirt was hiked up in the back with just a hint of bustle. She was poised and partitioned, though always well bred, there often looked a flash of mischief in her eyes.”(4) Gibson was an avid recorder of his surroundings and drew inspiration from his everyday life. His interpretation of the American girl was “Gibson Girl”, who appeared on countless covers of Life magazine Collier’s Weekly and other leading publications (fig.1).
When asked about the origins of his Gibson girl, he replied, “I’ll tell you how I got what you called the “Gibson Girl”. I saw her on the streets, I saw her at the theaters, I saw her in the churches, I saw her everywhere doing everything. I saw her idling on Fifth Avenue and at work behind counters of the stores. From hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands I formed my ideal… A poet may perhaps create his wholly from his fancy. I guess I’m not a poet. I got mine from the crowd.”(5) The Gibson girl was not inspired from a single model; the figure was his interpretation of values he thought embodied in the true American woman. He believed that women should be treated as equals to men, with regard and wonder.(6) In his characterization of the Gibson girl, he creates a female who deserves attention, not because of her outer appearance, but because of the depth of her intellect, strong independence and dignity.
Mary Cassatt drew inspiration from her surroundings as well. Mary Cassatt’s mother, Katherine Cassatt, was a big influence in forming her daughter’s intellect, and was also an excellent model of intelligence and accomplishment.(7) Many of her works depict females as the model of intelligence and accomplishments, which comes directly from her surroundings and influence from her domestic realm. Katherine Cassatt was exceptionally well educated and intelligent, who believed in educating her children to be worldly and up-to-date in social issues and current events.(8) During the nineteenth century, the idea of men representing the intellect still prevailed and it was a transgression to show a woman engaged in intellectual activity. In Reading “Le Figaro” (1878), Cassatt creates a luminous portrait of her mother engaged in her daily activity of reading the paper (fig.2).
Rather than reading a women’s magazine or novel, Cassatt is shown in figure 1 reading a mainstream daily newspaper “Le Figaro” often associated with the masculine. The portrait of Cassatt’s mother is filled with light and a sense of buoyancy. The intimate setting allows the viewers to imagine the artist at work, thus Mary Cassatt is not only representing a moment of intellectual preoccupation of her mother, but she is also representing herself as an intellectual being.(9) This correspondence between the artist and the figure further highlights the space the figure occupies—allowing the viewers to scrutinize the painting from a women’s perspective. The great expanse of white dress gives the figure a solid, even monumental aspect, which presents substance and weight that show strong and intelligent personality of the figure.(10) The mirror behind the figure serves as an element to break the flatness of the interior, yet it also further accentuates the intellectual activity the figure is engaged in.
Gibson also portrayed women engaged in intellectual activity. In both A Word to the Wise, and The Reason Dinner was Late, women are occupied in reading and painting, which were both considered to be in the masculine realm during this time (fig. 3)(fig. 4).
In A Word to the Wise, the woman in the center is at an upper-class dinner party seated between two young men who do not interest her. This image is both commenting on the monotonous nature of social events at the time, but also accentuates her activity by placing two slightly perplexed young men who seem clearly intimidated by her presence. In The Reason Dinner was Late, the young girl is absorbed in her task while an entourage of women examines and ponders her work. Gibson states in an interview with the New York Times, “Women are most beautiful of all created things—not women sitting on a cloud, idealized, but honest, living, helping, actual women—women such as we have here in the United States.”(11) The Reason Dinner was Late can be seen as quite humorous, however, the intent gaze of the central young women artist is direct, confident and analytical. She holds the power of her pen, and is not intimidated by the self-involved police officer. In fact it is quite the opposite; the police officer to the right is exposed, vulnerable and scrutinized by the artist’s direct interpretation.
Since Cassatt was the only person during this period to depict a woman driving a buggy (12), Woman and Child Driving (1879), depicting an extremely modern subject for this time, which sheds light on self-confidence and the growing independence of women (fig.5).
In this asymmetrical composition, Lydia Cassatt, the artist’s sister, is in the driver’s seat holding the reigns, while a male figure sits facing away, in the back. Odile, the young niece of Degas, is the little girl beside her, firmly grasping the handle of the carriage while she stares toward their destination. This portrayal of a woman engaged in what would normally be considered a masculine activity can be evidence toward her view that women are competent in engaging in independent activities. The painting is depicted from the eye level of the viewer and she has severely cropped the image to attain the intimacy and proximity of a snap shot. Some might point out that the stiffness of the figures seem static and posed, but in fact, Cassatt being an excellent horsewoman herself, knew that in order to drive a buggy one must have erect posture, steady hands and concentrate on the road ahead of her. In this painting, it is clear that the artist was trying to focus on the activity itself rather than present a woman in her usual realm—the dining room, drawing room, bedrooms, balconies and private gardens (15). Cassatt’s Lydia is almost represented as the flâneur, having a determined look, knowing where she’s going, intent on her destination. It can also be noticed that the two main figures are highlighted by light whereas the man, in the background, is hidden in the shadows cast by the forest. By placing the inactive half hidden man, Cassatt is further accentuating the independent woman. The subject of theater was also extremely popular with the impressionist since it embodied many aspects of modern life: fashion, social exchanges, culture and the spectacle. In this place of public entertainment, the people were as much a spectacle as the actual performances they were watching (16). Usually women in the paintings were rarely characterized except by their clothing and their prettiness which contributed to the festive atmosphere. However, Cassatt centered her images on portraying the individual women, altering the existing impressionist theme, which often objectified women. In her Woman in Black at the Opera (1880), the opera-goer does not face the viewer, but is shown in a profile view in a darkened auditorium, intently observing the performance through opera glasses (fig. 6).
Her determined gaze is toward the stage, ignoring the viewer entirely, indicating her intense concentration. Her costume that consists of a dark business-like afternoon dress suggests that she is not at an evening performance, but at a matinee. The theater itself was one of the few public entertainments accessible to women and afternoon matinees existed due to this specific audience: a new type of female who participates in cultural events.(17) In Cassatt’s painting the opera glasses cover the woman’s face, hiding her facial features, and her garb is employed as a way to indicate the time of day rather than to enhance her beauty. Again, Cassatt is emphasizing the action or the activity the women is engaged in, portraying the modern woman as an intellectual being.
In Gibson’s Valerie was busy, Exceedingly, he portrays a young lady immersed in her work on a half covered wooden desk (fig. 7).
There are papers on the floor, and the tablecloth is pushed aside as if this covering is an annoyance to her. She has no intention of keeping tidy or looking desirable; she is bent over in her work, intent on making progress. Although she is seen within the domestic realm, she is not enclosed by her surroundings, in fact, her air of conviction and direct intentions place her as the owner of her own world. In The Sweetest Story Ever Told, Gibson portrays a young woman playing the violin (fig. 8).
The parallel lines created by the violin bow and the backside of her arm directs the viewer’s attention to her face. Her gaze is engaging directly with the viewer, but due to the contrast of her light figure with the dark violin, it is her activity that is even more accentuated. This moment is captured at the very second when she is getting ready to drive her bow upward and the viewer has the opportunity to perceive this moment of brief intermission. The frenzied, quick hatch marks surrounding her arm seem to heighten the movement made by a violinist. Gibson has omitted any intense recordings of decorative elements in her attire but yet, still beautifully captured this confident musician in action. It is her composure, self-assurance and command in her subject matter that accentuates her beauty.
Gibson himself once noted “The idea…of many new time artist on the other side is that women can be just two things—mere toys or mere machines…the American see that [women] are the biggest and best part of life and treat them with regard and wonder. It is this appreciation that has helped our art more than any other one thing has. The men who harness women up with dogs will not advance much in their art; the men who place them where they rightfully belong will really progress.” (18) Gibson believed that the ‘true’ beauty of women is only heightened by the way men regard women. Cassatt did not disregard the traditional attributes associated with femininity; after all her oeuvre consists of work that mainly depicts domestic and private scenes of women. The significance of her art is that she transformed the way women were depicted at the time. She captured the individual expression of the human soul and elevated the potential of women. She presented her subjects as intellectual beings, rather than objectified spectacles. Gibson respected women in the highest regard, and this respect and admiration reflected in his work. By giving them an inner world, intellect, and identity, it presented the women as strong individuals with a sharp cultural and political conscious.
1) Griselda Pollock, Mary Cassatt, Painter of Modern Women (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, 1998), 122.
2) Frederick W. Morton, “Charles Dana Gibson, Illustrator,” Brush and Pencil Volume 7, No.5 (1901): 281.
3) Ibid., 283.
4) Susan E. Meyer, America’s Greatest Illustrators (New York: H.N. Abrams, 1978), 116.
5) Edward, Marshall, “The Gibson Girl Analyzed by her Originator”, The New York Times (1910)
7) Griselda Pollock, Mary Cassatt (London: Chaucer Press, 2005), 15.
8) Griselda Pollock, Mary Cassatt: The Touch and the Gaze, or Impressionism for Thinking People, In Women Impressionists, eds. Ingrid Pfeiffer and Max Hollein (Germany: Hatje Cantz, 2008), 162.
10) E. John Bullard, Mary Cassatt, Oils and Pastels (New York: Watson-Guptill in association with National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1998), 40.
11) Marshall, “The Gibson Girl Analyzed by her Originator”.
12) Fillin-Yeh, Susan, “Mary Cassatt’s Images of Women”, Art Journal 35 (1976): 363.
13) Bullard, 30.
15) Griselda Pollock, Vision and Difference: Femininity, Feminism and the Histories of Art (London: Routledge, 1988), 248.
16) Whitney Chadwick, Women, Art and Society, 4th ed. (London: Thames & Hudson, 2007), 241.
17) Fillin-Yeh, “Mary Cassatt’s Images of Women”, 360.
18) Marshall, “The Gibson Girl Analyzed by her Originator”.
These references should be listed the same way throughout and alphabetically by author’s last name.
Bullard, E. John. Mary Cassatt, Oils and Pastels. New York: Watson-Guptill in association with National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1998.
Chadwick, Whitney. Women, Art and Society, 4th ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2007.
Marshall, Edward. “The Gibson Girl Analyzed by her Originator”, The New York Times. 1910.
Meyer, Susan E. America’s Greatest Illustrators. New York: H.N Abrams, 1978.
Morton, Frederick W. “Charles Dana Gibson, Illustrator,” Brush and Pencil Volume 7, No.5, 1901
Pollock, Griselda. Mary Cassatt, Painter of Modern Women. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, 1998.
Pollock, Griselda. Mary Cassatt: The Touch and the Gaze, or Impressionism for Thinking People. In Women Impressionists, eds. Ingrid Pfeiffer and Max Hollein. Germany: Hatje Cantz, 2008.
Pollock, Griselda. Vision and Difference: Femininity, Feminism and the Histories of Art. London: Routledge, 1988.
Fillin-Yeh, Susan. “Mary Cassatt’s Images of Women.” Art Journal 35 (1976): 359-363.