ISLESBORO, Maine — It was a sunny, breezy day, the kind of weather that makes it clear why the wealthy, powerful and elite such as legendary American illustrator Charles Dana Gibson chose to escape the stifling summer heat of the big city for the cooling ocean air of the Maine islands.
And although the second floor of the Islesboro Historical Society was warm and a little humid on a recent afternoon, it was the kind of day that was fitting to view an exhibit about the life of Gibson, creator of the iconic Gibson Girl and former publisher of Life Magazine who spent summers and much of his retirement on an is-land near Islesboro.
“Charles Dana Gibson: An Artist of Maine Changes Social Manners and Images of America” is on display until Aug. 31, when it will close for good after a three-year run. Amanda Hobart, a summer resident of Islesboro who lives the rest of the year in Washington, D.C., put together the exhibit in 2008 and has curated it ever since, adding new pieces each year.
The show has evolved into a collection of 13 on-loan original Gibson prints and oil paintings, along with Gibson books, copies of advertisements in which the Gibson Girl was featured, and images of Gibson’s work that ran in magazines such as Life and Collier’s. It also includes copies, clippings and books about Gibson.
Among the items on display are silhouette images Hobart said Gibson made as a child. The sense of whimsy — a series of silhouettes shows a mother chicken leading some chicks, each with its own personality evident despite the simplicity of the medium — that marked Gibson’s adult work is evident in the silhouettes, too — another of the reasons Hobart feels such a pull toward his life.
“I’m struck by some genetic makeup that allowed him at age 8 to be able to do something like that,” she said of the silhouettes. “These are simple cutouts but there is so much character. So he had something very big going for him.”
Indeed, Gibson, who was born in 1867 and married former Virginia debutante Irene Langhorne, hit it big with his illustrations.
Although he was based in New York, Gibson bought Seven Hundred Acre Island, which is just off the southern end of Islesboro, and built a home, chapel and children’s playhouse.
By the time Gibson purchased the island, he already was considered a seminal figure in American illustration. The Gibson Girl, which first appeared in the 1890s, is to this day an immediately recognizable image — she had hair piled on top of her head, along with a trim figure and tiny waist, pert nose and bee-stung lips; she was smartly dressed.
The Gibson Girl came to symbolize an era, appearing in advertisements and in popular magazines. Hobart included many Gibson Girl images in the Islesboro show, including Gibson’s “At the Matinee,” in which four women lean forward, rapt, from what the viewer can assume are chairs at a theater.
“The Gibson Girl became so popular, and everyone wanted [Gibson’s] line drawings,” Hobart said. “Very soon, commercial entities picked it up. She’s the woman we all want to be, poised, elegant, intelligent, athletic, accomplished. Although, we can’t all have her shape.”
Gibson’s other well-known character was Mr. Pipp, a man who, the story goes, took his beautiful young daughters overseas to introduce them to society.
However, Hobart said, the daughters were found to be so attractive that they walked all over their father, to humorous ends.
It was through those characters, and others, that Gibson made his social commentary, gently prodding the upper class — to which he surely belonged, along with his friends in the Roosevelt, Astor, Vanderbilt and Whitney families. His drawings focused on subjects such as man’s weakness in the presence of a beautiful woman, the reaction of a crowd at a baseball game, and the ennui of a dinner party.
The facial expressions — the besotted young man, the excited spectator, the bored dowager — communicated everything the viewer needed to know about the scene. They are expressions from scenes easily recognizable today.
“You can match all these faces to somebody you might know,” Hobart said.
Hobart’s exhibit also includes images Gibson created in support of the U.S. effort in World War I, for organizations such as the Board of Food Administration of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the Home Service of the American Red Cross.
As entertaining and historically significant as Gibson’s drawings were, it is Gibson’s oil paintings that are the most touching in the Islesboro exhibition. Hobart said that at one point in his career, Gibson felt constrained by his line drawings, especially as the colorful work of the Impressionists gained a foothold in Europe.
Gibson had a chance to focus on oil painting after his retirement in the late 1930s — Gibson died in 1944 — when he spent more and more time on Seven Hundred Acre Island. His work “Acre Island Landscape with Mrs. Gibson” is a much more painterly scene than his drawings, with much thicker brushstrokes and lines and the pale blues and greens of a stellar summer day dominating the color palette.
“He was trying all the time to move into this [style], and he retired to the island, where he did more work with color and oil,” Hobart said. “He loved to be on his island.”
IF YOU GO:
The Islesboro Historical Society is open 12:30-4:30 p.m. Saturday-Wednesday, until Aug. 31. The exhibit is free, but donations are accepted. For information, call 734-6733 or go to www.islesborohistorical.org.
Although the Charles Dana Gibson exhibit at the Islesboro Historical Society will end this year, interest in Gibson’s work continues.
Maine Public Broadcasting Network will air this month “Charles Dana Gibson: Portrait of an Illustrator.” The next showing will be 10:30 p.m. Thursday, July 15.
The film is narrated by ABC News’ Charles Gibson, who Hobart said is a relative of Charles Dana Gibson. Charles Dana Gibson’s great-grandson Josiah Emery directed, wrote and produced the film.
The Gibson Girl is a focus of an ongoing exhibit, “American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity” in New York City at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute.