Howard Chandler Christy: A Simple Question of Priorities

Well, if I sometimes fear that this blog is growing too much like too many other show business blogs, today won’t be one of those days. Everyone else on earth will be chiming in this morning about the death of comedian and actor Bob Saget, whose passing follows those of Betty White, Peter Bogdanovich, Sidney Poitier, and Dwayne Hickman (a.k.a Dobie Gillis) all in a rapid cluster. But I’ve literally never watched more than a minute of any of Saget’s television shows, nor seen his stand-up. There is nothing for me to memorialize here, having no memories of him or his work. So I will have the profoundly alienating honor this morning of sticking to my schedule and writing about the 20th century American illustrator Howard Chandler Christy (1872-1952). I believe I can claim with some assurance there won’t be many of us doing that this morning.

Christy was a popular magazine illustrator, who in the first two decades of the 20th century was associated with a vogue for his creation the Christy Girl, a kind of successor to the Gibson Girl. His models included Olive Thomas, Marion Davies, Lillian Russell, and Kay Laurell. Christy was part of the committee that discovered the It Girl Clara Bow, and was one of the very first judges of the Miss America Pageant. Prior to this, he had made a name for himself as a combat illustrator during the Spanish-American War, so in addition to his glamorous feminine subjects drawn from the ranks of chorus girls, he depicted hyper-masculine, militarized themes as well. One of his male models was an early-career Fredric March. Christy’s two gender normative themes came together in one of his best known works, this World War One recruitment poster:

Born and raised on an Ohio farm, Christy studied at the Arts Students League, and in private lessons with the eminent painter William Merritt Chase. Inspired by Howard Pyle, on top of his early career magazine work Christy also illustrated books such as James Whitcomb Riley’s Rhymes of Childhood, as well as works by Jack London, Tennyson, Sir Walter Scott, and many others.

In the ’20s Christy shifted gears and became a portrait painter and a visual interpreter of historical events. His famous subjects included a half dozen Presidents (Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, both Roosevelts and Truman), W.R. Hearst, Edward VIII, Amelia Earhart, Eddie Rickenbacker, Thomas Edison, and Will Rogers. Christy was especially inspired by patriotic topics. His most celebrated work may be the large scale canvas “Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States”, painted in 1940, which now hangs in the U.S. Capitol. I am especially interested in a series he did on Stephen Foster, given that the artist shared a surname with Foster’s principal rival. E.P. Christy. BTW, “Chandler” was Christy’s paternal grandmother’s maiden name. The actor Chick Chandler was his nephew.

Christy’s works hang in museums all over the world. We were delighted to see many of them on view at the National Museum of Illustration in Newport during our visit there a few years ago. Christy was a contemporary and friend of many others whose work is represented there, such as James Montgomery Flagg and Norman Rockwell.