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 model.
In 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
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.