1873 - 1952
Howard Chandler Christy:
Bucolic Naturalism to Café Society
Laurence S. Cutler, AIA RIBA
Howard Chandler Christy traveled a long road from watching steamboats on the
riverbanks of the Muskingum in Ohio to painting Presidents, society's
grandes dames, movie stars and admirals. His talents with a paintbrush took
him from a time consuming hobby to a lofty international reputation as one
of the greatest and most superb illustrators and portrait artists. As a
bucolic youth, art came naturally and ultimately it was art that led him
into a career, which was the envy of his day.
Born in 1873 to Francis Marion Christy and Mary Matilda Chandler, his
childhood nickname was 'Smiley,' although his nickname later in life became
'Poppy.' The family claimed an 11-generation descent directly from Miles
Standish, Captain of the Mayflower. As a youth, Mary Christy encouraged
'Smiley' to develop his obvious skills as an artist and the family supported
his departure from their limiting farm environment of Duncan Falls, Ohio to
seriously pursue the study of art. He arrived in New York in 1890 and after
some scouting around, enrolled at the Art Students League. William Merritt
Chase was his first instructor, but shortly thereafter with funds exhausted
he returned to Ohio somewhat deflated. Two years later with more money in
his pockets, he retraced his steps and sought out Chase once again.
This time, Chase-tutored Christy privately, first at his Greenwich Village
studio and later at his summer venue in Shinnecock, Long Island. Chase
founded the first "plein air" art school in the country. The artists worked
outdoors and were thus able to develop techniques and effects, which created
greater ambience in their works. This practice led to a new realist
philosophy, which perfectly suited Christy's naturalistic upbringing. He was
also fascinated with Chase's opulent lifestyle, surrounding himself with
antiquities in a vast studio decadently decorated with flamboyant panache.
At Shinnecock, Christy was exposed to Chase's other students such as Gifford
Beal, Reynolds Beal, and Charles F. Nagle. Christy also admired the notable
American illustrators of the times, such as Howard Pyle.
At this time, great technological advances were being made in Publishing.
Christy sensed that a new field was opening up for his generation -
providing illustrations for the burgeoning number of new periodicals.
Reproduction technology evolved to the point where engravings were no longer
the sole, tedious and expensive means to reproduce a painting. This inspired
the needy young artist to turn to illustration as his profession. His first
project was to illustrate a manuscript by his friend Frank Crowninshield,
entitled In Camphor, and published by G. P. Putnam's Sons. Illustration
commissions rolled in thereafter and he was soon able to hire models and
move his studio to larger quarters. In 1898, he married one of his models,
Miss Maybelle Thompson.
Established as an illustrator, Christy was moved patriotically by the
explosion of the Battleship "Maine" in Cuba and signed on as an artist with
the magazines covering the Spanish-American War. He accompanied the United
States troops - the Rough Riders - and illustrated articles while under
fire, which were published by Scribner's, Harper's, The Century, and
Leslie's Weekly. During this campaign, Christy befriended Colonel Theodore
Roosevelt and gained an even broader interest in patriotic subjects. Upon
his return in 1898, he had become a celebrity from his war illustrations.
The experience had been a turning point for him.
His fame and reputation were secured with his picture, "The Soldier's Dream"
published in Scribners. The girl he portrayed in that and subsequent
paintings became known as "The Christy Girl". Like "The Gibson Girl," she
was almost a prtotype of the ideal American woman. S. J. Woolf, in an
interview, commented on Christy's notion of women:
"They represented the awakening female, no longer content to preside over
the kitchen, to be forbidden the golf course or the vote. The way Christy
drew her, she was popular with the males because of her charm, while the
young women liked her because she embodied their dreams of emancipation."
Christy also described his image of what this woman was truly like,
"High-bred, aristocratic and dainty though not always silken-skirted; a
woman with tremendous self-respect. " From this point forward, Christy
painted beautiful women for McClure's and other popular magazines.
Calendars, book illustrations (some books he authored as well, such as: The
Christy Girl, Bobbs-Merrill in 1906; and The American Girl in 1906) and
other illustration commissions expanded his audience. Fame and fortune had
found 'Smiley' from Ohio. In 1908, he returned to the riverbanks of the
Muskingum River and enlarged 'The Barracks' (his childhood home), by adding
a studio. Ensconced in his realm, he reflected on his successes and his love
for his country and he became a super patriot. In spite of being so far away
from the mainstream, publishers beat their way to his door. In 1910, his
commission rates reached an astounding $1,000 per week. It was during his
time in Ohio that Charles Dana Gibson introduced him to Nancy May Palmer, a
Society of Illustrators
1915, Christy returned to New York and continued on his career path with
more magazine commissions. As war appeared imminent in Europe, Christy
rallied his talents to assist in the war effort by painting posters for
government war bonds, the Red Cross, and civilian volunteer efforts. In
1917, he became the first tenant of the Hotel des Artistes and designed
himself a studio, which rivaled that of his mentor, William Merritt Chase.
In 1919, he divorced his wife and married Nancy May Palmer. Nancy became
his social secretary and his model. She was in fact the prototype for 'The
Christy Girl.' Attractive with an enchanting smile, she modeled for him
for years to come. The American public loved her image and her face was
seen everyplace between 1916 and 1921.
The 1920's were, of course, a time for an illustrator/portrait artist to
reap rewards. New directions, styles and music had combined with the
business boom to create a great market for the portrait artist in
particular. Politicians, socialites, actors, military leaders and business
tycoons all craved immortality on canvas. Christy painted celebrities such
as Benito Mussolini, Crown Prince Umberto of Italy, Captain Eddie
Rickenbacker, U. S. Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Coolidge, Hoover, Polk,
Van Buren and Garfield as well as humorist Will Rogers, aviator Amelia
Earhart, and Mr. and Mrs. William Randolph Ilea Hearst. Exhibitions,
commissions, trips to Europe and celebrity elbow rubbing engaged him
completely during the 1920' s.
In 1930-31, he became extremely depressed, as did so many others after the
'Great Crash of 1929'. During the 20's, he had been 'on a roll' with the
intelligentsia and the establishment elite. He now returned to his roots
and painted only with his heart - landscapes and the beautiful women's
bodies, which seemed always to surround him. Notable amongst the models
was Elise Ford, who was a dancer in Ziegfeld Follies when she met Christy.
Elise, also an artist, was his companion for 15 years as well as his
model. Later, she mothered his-child, Holly Christina Ford.
Murals and screens were added to his repertoire and his slump ended. In
1934, he painted the magnificent murals of female nudes at the Café des
Artistes in New York, a restaurant on the ground floor of his studio
building. There was a new recognition of Christy and with it came a new
kind of commission - commemorative paintings: paintings of celebrities,
allegorical paintings depicting historical events, posters of dignitaries
to memorialize significant events and the like.
During the 1940's, Christy painted mainly historical pieces such as, "The
Signing of the Constitution" (his most famous mural) which hangs in the
rotunda of the United States Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. Norman
Rockwell once observed -of Christy that, "The short, stocky, pugnacious
Christy, boomingly cheerful, publicity and he are right for each other, .
. . like cole slaw and church suppers."
Christy died peacefully at the age of 80 in 1952, in his beloved studio
apartment at the Hotel des Artistes. His reputation through-out his life
had been enormous and yet scarcely anything remains today, which describes
this incredible man and his works.