Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Gibson Defied the Stereotype

Through much of the nineteenth century, American publications of all sorts depicted the Irish maid, "Biddy" as she was stereotyped, in brutal terms. She was crude, clumsy and clueless. These depictions endured into the early twentieth century.
"An Imitation of the Lady of the House," Studies in Expression," 1902.

The career of artist Charles Dana Gibson spanned the two centuries. In his day, he was arguably the country's most popular illustrator. Gibson specialized in portraying America's High Society. His young women—“Gibson Girls”—helped shape prevailing notions of feminine beauty. This is one of my favorite Gibson sketches. Rather than depicting the elite playing polo or dancing at a debutante ball, Gibson here shows a group of household servants entertaining a policeman in the kitchen. They are Irish. The center of attention is a maid who, to the amusement of all (even the cat), mimics the affectations of her mistress. Gibson's Irish maid breaks the ill-favored, ill-mannered mold. She is willowy and attractive, just like a Gibson Girl. Even better, she is witty.

"The Reason Dinner Was Late," Life, October 24, 1912.

Ten years later, Gibson published
 "The Reason Dinner Was Late." This sequel to "An Imitation" depicts several Irish domestics watching as their coworker sketches the visiting Irish cop. The mixing of Hibernian maids, cooks, and cops was a familiar theme in comic illustrations. Again, what sets this image apart is that Gibson portrays his subjects without scorn (although, as the title suggests, dinner gets served later than mistress would want). One can only speculate on why Gibson did not follow the trend in disparaging the Irish. My own guess is that as a child of privilege--Gibson grew up in a wealthy Connecticut household--he may well have had an Irish nursemaid or cook, much as did so many among America's elite. If that were so, one suspects that he nurtured fond memories of a friendly kitchen.  

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