PORTRAIT OF AN ERA
AS DRAWN BY
C • D • GIBSON
A BIOGRAPHY BY
FAIRFAX DOWNEY

AN EXCERPT
PORTRAIT OF AN ERA AS DRAWN BY C. D. GIBSON
A BIOGRAPHY BY Fairfax Downey

So it was a depressed and disheartened young artist who one winter's day in I886 carried a slim portfolio of drawings to the office of Life. Diffidently, almost hopelessly, he left them for inspection by the editor, John Ames Mitchell.

II

The magazine which was Mitchell's brain-child was then barely three years old. Since it had lasted that long, its staff, ever fond of punning on its title, had reason to hope for more than a short life and a gay one. Along with Puck and Judge, born in I877 and I88I respectively, it had survived the high infant mortality among American humorous periodicals of which some twenty-five previously had perished prematurely and more or less expensively. Before these three new wearers of cap and bells stretched long, successful spans. Keppler of Puck, Ike Gregory of Judge, and Mitchell had chosen the psychological period when a nation which had taken itself soberly and seriously for a hundred years was proudly discovering and vaunting its sense of humor.

 

For seven years Mitchell had studied painting and architecture in Paris and won some successes in both. Then he illustrated two books of light verse, enjoyed it tremendously and was doomed to his fate. Friends vainly attempted to dissuade him from that venture which ranks as one of the wildest of games of chance–launching a magazine, especially a humorous one. Mitchell was determined, convinced that there was an opportunity to exploit his own and others' talents in that field. Similar magazines long had flourished abroad; Puck and Judge were straws in the wind; and newly-developed photo-engraving offered splendid opportunity to black-and-white art. These were favorable elements of a bet the short end of which Mitchell took, risking a legacy of ten thousand dollars against heavy odds. The die cast, he converted his studio at II55 Broadway, New York City, into an office and set about recruiting a staff.

Edward S. Martin, who as a founder of The Harvard Lampoon had been "afflicted with identical delusions," was enlisted as literary editor, and, except for intermissions due to ill-health, was a prop of Life for many years. He in turn brought in another young Harvard man, Andrew Miller, who became the magazine's exceedingly able business manager. Mitchell, Martin, Miller and later Masson and Metcalfe. It was not surprising the legend arose that a position on the staff of Life depended upon one's name beginning with M or an education at Harvard.

The original trio bestowed on their enterprise a title which seemed to cover everything and plunged into the appalling task of bringing out a sheet which would be funny or at least entertaining every week for fifty-two weeks a year.

Fat bundles of returns–unsold copies dumped back on the office by dealers–brought dismay for month after month. The editors were almost ready to believe an overheard remark to the effect that their paper was poorly named and the antonym would have been a better choice. That it turned the corner before one year had elapsed and before its capital had vanished testified to Mitchell's editorial genius, and the tribute was the more extraordinary for his having conjured most of his material out of thin air. While he knew the type of art and text he wanted, they were virtually non-existent. Possessing the ability to produce both himself (a clever illustrator and satirist were lost when Mitchell finally concentrated entirely on editing), he also owned the rarer gift of inspiring and directing the creative urge in others.

Thus it happened that a goodly company of pen-draftsmen gradually were rallied to Life's black-and-white banner. Early members of the corps were W. H. Hyde and Harry McVickar, who tilted at the foibles of the world of Society to which they both belonged; the latter drew patent-leather shoes with a sheen which was the despair of polish manufacturers. F. G. Atwood graphically chronicled events, current and past. Palmer Cox paraded his brownies and E. W. Kemble his comical darkies. Oliver Herford looked at cats and kings, drew them and put witty verses in their mouths. "Paris" under the signature of Albert Sterner placed the cachet on the costumes of his modish ladies. Gray-Parker's pictures spurred Anglomaniacs to fury and horsey folk to admiration.

Mitchell filled the space between drawings with pithy text. His and Martin's editorials were good sense, lightly and concisely presented. Early numbers were graced with poems by James Whitcomb Riley, Henry Guy Carleton, and G. T. Lanigan, threnodist of the Ahkoond of Swat. Brander Matthews provided dramatic criticism. Condensed novels were contributed by Henry A. Beers, a Yale voice crying out in a Harvard wilderness. The versatile and fertile John Kendrick Bangs furnished anything and everything from jokes to travesties.

Individual and unique in drawing and writing–such was Life.

Mitchell made it so. The magazine did not merely amuse. It anticipated trends and wittily took them off. Swiftly it became a power, wielding the sharp weapons of satire and ridicule. One of its mastheads, drawn by Mitchell, represented a hard-riding knight with pen-lance couched and levelled at the posterior of a devil who fled like the social and political smugness, meanness, and hyprocrisy he symbolized. Never was Life's courage dampened by such evidences of disapproval as the bomb once placed on its doorstep or by libel suits, not one of which it lost. It dared attack whomever or whatever it thought deserved attack, and readers and even advertisers, who chanced to be irritated, turned friends again when they had their laughs at others whose toes were stepped on. Independence proved to be both good business and good fun.

Life was the modern equivalent of the medieval jester whispering, between quips, words of wisdom and sentiment in the ear of a sovereign people. Its influence was tremendously augmented by features with no normal place in a humorous magazine. There was, for one, its battle against injuries caused by Fourth of July fireworks. (Can any one who saw it ever forget the cartoon, "The Glorious Fourth," of a family gathered around a blinded boy while rockets, seen through a window, soar against the night?) Another benefaction to which the magazine rallied subscribers was its fresh air fund which sent so many poor children from the slums on country vacations. These campaigns stimulated circulation and advertising "at a time when people of quality and purchasing power considered joke papers a little undignified," and they delivered Life from the usual confinement of its kind in clubs and barber shops, admitting it to homes. Yet they were neither the logical moves nor the carefully conceived strategy they have been called. Without ulterior motives, they sprang from Mitchell's heart.

Not least in the factors in Life's success was its devotion to the cosmic impulse. Love made both the world and Mr. Mitchell magazine go 'round. The editor "had a vast sympathy for love and that was one of the things that kept Life young and commende it to youth." One of those books he had illustrated, The Summer School of Philosophy at Mount Desert, overflowed with cupids and courtship, with beaux and banjos, with demure maidens who inquired of chaperons if canoeing were dangerous and were told that it was not as long as you stayed in the canoe. Most appropriately a cupid became Life's graphic mascot and the familiar spirit pre siding over its pages. On Mitchell's original cover, boy and girl cherubs danced to Father Time's fiddling, and the medallion of a bride stood as a sort of summary of much of its table of contents.

Ill

A future expert delineator of love themes, that young artist who had left a batch of drawings at Life, plucked up nerve enough to return a few days later. This time there would be no addition to collections of unsigned, unhonored and unclaimed Gibsons cluttering up and annoying art departments around the town. He would simply pick these up, take them home and throw them away. Slowly, reluctantly he climbed the stairs. The memory of a towering sixfooter and his dragging footsteps lingered with the descending Oliver Herford, slight and sprightly from having just sold a drawing for a cover.

Those hundreds of rejections had drained the novice's confidence. He could not know that Life was receptive and hospitable to newcomers. So far as he was concerned, the magazine might already have made its subsequent threat that its next office would be surrounded by dank moats as receptacles for artists expecting the staff to teach them how to draw; that it would maintain deep dungeons where miscreants who submitted jokes from Punch of I849

would be punished by a sentence to read the New York Tribune. The threat of such terrors would not have strained his imagination, as he was led, almost thrust, into the presence of John Ames Mitchell.

Gibson saw a pair of kindly eyes twinkling at him through glasses, a warming, reassuring smile above a trim, Parisian beard, a slightly rotund, compact figure. Mitchell's welcome was courtesy itself, although he was about to go out to lunch and that is never the best moment to confront an editor. He glanced over the sketches submitted.

The scales of fate hung balanced. Much of Life's prosperity was weighed with Gibson's future that day, the pointer swinging between an acceptance or rejection.

Rejected J. A. M. Accepted
As seen by a contributor

 

W. H. Walker once drew a cartoon of Mitchell as he appeared to an artist after an editorial decision: a beaming saint in a halo if he had accepted the drawing; Satan himself if he had turned it down. The latter aspect was a spoofing slander, for no editor, unless it were Richard Watson Gilder of 7th Century, was better versed in the gentle art of rejecting gently.

The awful suspense increased, as Mitchell separated one small sketch from the others. Privately he thought it "reasonably bad" as a drawing, yet it showed promise and this was the type of young artist he wished to encourage. The timely humor of the idea was strong in its favor. All New York was captivated by the lovely song that Geraldine Ulmar as Yum-Yum was singing in The Mikado

Gibson's first contribution to Life

`` THE MOON AND I."

Ah, pray make no mistake, We are not shy;

We're very wide awake, The moon and I.

The words and music must have been running through the head of the editor, as he looked at: this picture of a comical little dog straining at his kennel chain to bay at a big moon, and read the caption, "The Moon and I."

Mitchell smiled that warm smile of his. It was the saintly smile. He tapped his lips with the gesture of reproof he used when he feared he was going to stutter. Then he said: "We're taking this one, Mr. Gibson."

Charles Dana Gibson, with a bow to Gilbert and Sullivan, was a successful contributor to Life by virtue of a drawing accepted and paid for on the spot at the rate of four dollars.

He walked on air as he left the office. Without any influence brought to bear, without any circumstances favoring him, he had sold a drawing to a stranger, to the editor of a real magazine. It could be done. Sighting a restaurant across the street, he realized that the walk in from Flushing that morning, plus the excitement of his triumph, had made him ravenously hungry. By way of celebration the elated young artist blew in seventy-five cents of his four almighty dollars on a large chicken pie.

CHAPTER V

HERO OUT OF ALGER

That night Life's latest contributor bent over the center table in the sitting room at home. His jubilant pen dashed od drawings until the oil lamp burned low. Next morning when he rushed in with his output of six to Mr. Mitchell, the verdict was against him.

"Not so good as your first, my lad," said the editor. "I'm afraid we can't use these."

The same fate befell the next four drawings submitted. But it was "my lad" now–no longer the formal "Mr. Gibson," and each refusal was softened by Mitchell's cordial encouragement and sympathetic understanding. "Life regrets that it cannot accept your contribution. Rejection implies no lack of merit" . . . thus were phrased the slips which many an unsuccessful artist and scribe received, slips which they suspected of being wringing wet with crocodile tears. It was evident to Gibson, though, that Mitchell was really sorry at having to decline his drawings; that merit was implied and was recognized. All that was needed was a little more of it.

Mitchell revealed his reasons for rallying those early Gibson endeavors in a confession made five years later. The occasion was the ,oooth number of Life, for which Gibson, who was already in the I-knew-him-when stage, had drawn the cover.

"Having myself, as a professional, done some climbing up the slippery hill of Art," the editor wrote, "I detected beneath the outer badness of these drawings peculiarities rarely discovered in the efforts of a beginner. For the beginner, as a rule, shows far more admiration for technical cleverness than for the more serious qualities of drawing and composition; and he endeavors to conceal his shortcomings by elaborate and misdirected labors.


From the Book
PORTRAIT OF AN ERA AS DRAWN BY C. D. GIBSON
Written Fairfax Downey

A hand written Note from Fairfax Downey


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