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The rise of American illustrator Howard Chandler Christy

Created date

March 31st, 2017
The "Christy Girl."

The "Christy Girl."

He was one of America’s greatest illustrators—every bit as much an artist as better-known luminaries like Norman Rockwell. Yet, while he was a household name in his time, Howard Chandler Christy is almost forgotten today.

Born in Ohio in 1873, Christy grew up in a poor family and, early on, had little opportunity to grow as an artist. His eventual rise to success was due to his talent and initiative.

He possessed neither the money nor the connections required for admission to a four-year college and, instead, moved to New York City in 1890 to study at the Art Students League.

A respected institution, the League was an informal workshop in which amateur and aspiring professional artists could hone their existing skills and acquire new ones under the tutelage of established working masters. 

It was fertile ground for Christy, who quickly came into his own as an artist before enrolling at the prestigious National Academy of Design, where he studied with the eminent American painter and Parsons School of Design founder William Merritt Chase. Christy proved a natural at depicting the human form and soon realized that the burgeoning fields of commercial and journalistic illustration were ideal for a man with his skills. 

The publishing industry was then in the midst of a technological revolution wherein photo-reproduction was replacing the tedious process of engraving as the standard for printing artwork in periodicals. Readers wanted something visual, and thanks to this development, publishers were poised to give it to them.

War provides artistic opportunity

In 1898, Christy saw an opening. When the U.S. battleship Maine exploded in Spanish-controlled Cuba’s Havana Harbor, America precipitously cried foul, launching the Spanish-American War.

As with all conflicts, newspapers and magazines needed writers and artists to serve as combat correspondents. Christy signed up as an illustrator, working freelance for noted journals such as Harper’s, Collier’s, Scribner’s, Leslie’s Weekly, and Century.

His work was brilliant.

Hardly a rear-echelon observer, Christy witnessed some of the war’s heaviest fighting; namely the Battle of San Juan Hill, during which Lt. Col. Theodore Roosevelt and his famed “Rough Riders” executed their historic charge.

To be sure, Christy had a gift for capturing life and its many nuances. Like vivid dreams, there was a slight impressionistic nature to his work, however, always with a marked sense of reality. 

On one occasion, Christy stumbled upon a haunting scene, which he reproduced in a painting entitled An Awful Tragedy of the Spanish War. Originally appearing in an October 1898 issue of Leslie’s Illustrated, it shows a young woman sprawled on the floor with a knife in her chest.

In a nearby chair sits her murderer, a drunken Spanish soldier, passed out, his head resting on a table.

But it was his portrait of Lt. Col. Roosevelt and the illustrations of his exploits that catapulted Christy to national prominence. In 1899, Scribner’s published these paintings in Roosevelt’s Rough Riders series. 

Despite its success, Christy had seen enough violence and death to last him a lifetime. On his return to the civilian world, he resolved to focus on a more pleasant subject: women.

Birth of the ‘Christy Girl’

During the war, Christy had painted a striking scene which he called The Soldier’s Dream. Published in Scribner’s in 1898, the composition shows a soldier at rest, puffing on a pipe.

In the smoke of his exhalations is a stunning woman, clearly the soldier’s sweetheart and, in essence, the prototype of Christy’s most famous creation—“the Christy Girl.” She became his trademark as an illustrator and, over the years, earned him a small fortune because of what she did for women. 

Until her debut, women were often represented as demure, submissive, and generally better seen rather than heard. Christy’s girl, on the other hand, exuded such qualities as strength, athleticism, intelligence, and the unmistakable air of independence.

Magazine subscribers around the country picked up on this and took a liking to the artist’s work. By 1910, Christy was making upwards of $50,000 a year (the 2017 equivalent of over $1 million). 

Ultimately, he had become so wealthy he could do whatever he wanted as an artist. In the 1920s and 1930s, he earned a reputation as one of the foremost portraitists of the rich and famous. 

Until his death in 1952, numerous celebrities and world leaders posed for Christy, including publishing mogul William Randolph Hearst; famed flyers Amelia Earhart and Eddie Rickenbacker; the Prince of Wales; Benito Mussolini; and Presidents Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman.

Christy is one of the few popular illustrators to have his work displayed in both the White House and the U.S. Capitol building, no small accomplishment for anyone, let alone a man from such humble beginnings.

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