Howard Chandler Christy 1980 Hall of Fame Inductee The Café Des Artistes just off Central Park West is like many elegant, intimate bistros in New York. But what distinguishes it from the others are the cascades of nymphets sporting in leafy glades all over the rooms. They are Howard Chandler Christy’s girls, and they’re a healthy lot. Christy loved peppy girls. He thought good skin, teeth and hair and lots of animation were the American ideal. He made the rest of the country think so too with his ubiquitous “Christy Girl.”
From the turn of the century to 1921, his girls filled magazines, graced advertisements and posters and were the subject of a number of books. Thousands of young men enlisted in 1917 in response to a Christy poster that read, “Gee! I Wish I Were a Man.” The model for that famous call to arms was Nancy Palmer, who became Christy’s second wife in 1919. Norman Rockwell described her as, “a big, handsome, blonde woman who always reminded me of an 1890s burlesque queen.” For her husband, she was the embodiment of the vision that had created the “Christy Girl.”
Smiley, as Christy was called as a youngster, hadn’t always drawn pretty girls. His first commission wasn’t even of a woman. It was a bull for the local butcher in Muskingum County, Ohio, when Christy was ten. All through his childhood, he sketched. He ended his formal education at 12 to draw and to help out on his father’s farm. In 1889, when he was 16, he took $300 and made his way to New York to study at the Art Students League. His money ran out in short order so he returned to the farm. Three years later, backed by a wealthy relative, he gave it another try, enrolling at the League and the National Academy. He showed such promise that William Merritt Chase took him on as a private student at his famous Tenth Street Studio.
Christy pursued fine art for five years until impecuniosity, coupled with a six-dollar sale to Life magazine, convinced him to take up illustration. Chase, incensed, refused to speak to the struggling artist for three years. But Smiley’s hardships came to an end in 1898. Reportage commissions to cover the Spanish-American war came from Harper’s, Scribner’s and Leslie’s Weekly. Christy traveled with Teddy Roosevelt, sketching all the way; the result was a book called Men of the Army and Navy, published the following year. His record of most of the major action, including the Battle of Santiago, made him a celebrity.
Christy returned home to many assignments of a military nature. He complained, “Surely by now I have served my apprenticeship and have earned an opportunity of just one girl—any girl.” But once again it was another soldier story. This time, however, he portrayed his first Christy girl in the curling smoke of the returning hero’s pipe. Almost overnight he became one of the top dream-makers around.
One of his models, Maybelle Thompson, married him but the marriage was a tempestuous one amid much gossip. The marriage ended after ten years and Christy withdrew to Duncan Falls, Ohio with his daughter, Natalie, to recoup his emotional health. He became a Christian Scientist and worked according to a strict regimen, (the imported models bivouacked in the many guestrooms) once completing 27 paintings in 28 days. On his return to New York in 1915, he moved into the Hotel Des Artistes, one of the first of many artists to do so. In the thirties, the Café Des Artistes dedicated one of their rooms to him.
Christy was a boisterous, garrulous fellow. He and his buddy, James Montgomery Flagg, were the life of any party at the Players Club, the Aldine Club or the Lambs Club. The gossip columnists loved him and his opinions on beauty were cause for headlines. “Not the ‘V’ But the Wearer Determines Modesty,’ Says Illustrator Christy.”
In 1921, the year of the first Miss America Beauty Contest in Atlantic City, Christy was the only judge. The following year, Coles Phillips, J.M. Flagg, Charles Chambers and Norman Rockwell joined him. Rockwell said of Christy, “Publicity and he were right for each other. Like pearls and duchesses or cole slaw and church suppers.”
It was also in 1921 that Christy was elected an honorary member of the U.S. Naval Academy. Christy was dedicated to a number of causes—the Police Athletic League, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army and the Children’s Humane Society. And in 1921, at the peak of his career, he announced his retirement from illustration to become a portrait painter. That first year he completed 30 canvases, which included Mrs. William Randolph Hearst and President Warren G. Harding. Over the years he painted and befriended a dazzling array of the rich and famous: Will Rogers, Herbert Hoover, Mary Baker Eddy, Norman Vincent Peale, the Prince of Wales, the Crown Prince of Italy, Amelia Earhart, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker and Mussolini.
For the sesquicentennial of the signing of the Constitution in 1937, Christy received a $30,000 commission to do a 20-by-30-foot canvas depicting the event. He spent two years researching and eight months in the Navy Yard sail loft painting the piece that now hangs above the east grand staircase in the Capitol. For the next decade, he did a number of large-scale historical murals in addition to his many portraits. With the onset of World War II, Christy’s posters appeared once again but with less bounce and more sobriety than for the former war.
Howard Chandler Christy died in 1952 at 79, leaving an unfinished portrait of General Douglas MacArthur on his easel.
© 2011 Society of Illustrators