Howard Chandler Christy

The year was 1921 and Howard Chandler Christy was invited to Atlantic City to be one of the judges of the first Miss America Beauty Contest.  Norman Rockwell, who was another of the judges, described how “Christy would appear in a white suit and broad-brimmed Stetson with a beautiful contestant on each arm, and the photographers would leave us milling about and run to take his picture….”  Outgoing, jovial, a man of considerable panache, his life and style were as much in the public’s eye as was his art.

He had an eye for beautiful women, portrayed by his pen and brush.  They became a recognizable style referred to as the Christy Girl, whose playful and animated feminine features replaced the stiff and restrained Gibson Girl ideal of the previous generation.

He married his model Maybelle Thompson in 1898.  They had one daughter, Natalie Chandler Christy.  That tumultuous marriage ended in divorce.  Then he was introduced to a Gibson Girl by Charles Dana Gibson himself.  Her name was Nancy May Palmer, who was then recast as the prototype of the Christy Girl and became his second wife.  Late in life it was another of his models, Elise Ford, an aspiring painter and dancer in the Ziegfeld Follies, who became his companion for fifteen years.  She gave him a second daughter, Holly Christina Ford.

Being a great patriot, Howard Chandler Christy was one of several artists to come down from New York in April of 1919 to take part in the Camac Street Carnival, an extravaganza planned by the Club’s own H. Devitt Welsh to raise money for the Fifth (Victory) Liberty Bond Campaign.  It was at this time that he became a member of our Club, even though he remained a resident of the Hotel des Artiste in Manhattan, where, starting in 1917, he was one of the new building’s first residents.  Staying a member into 1924 must have been his way of honoring and supporting our Club, after all, we already possessed many equally famous fellow artists of the Golden Age of American Illustrators.

Born 10th January 1873 in Morgan County, Ohio, he was four years old and already sketching when his father, Francis Marion Christy, a farmer, took his son to Zanesville to visit the artist Charles Craig.  From that moment, Howard knew he wanted to be an artist and pleaded with his father for a set of watercolors.  Despite their poverty, his father and mother, Mary Matilda Bone Chandler, supported Howard’s desire to be an artist and bought him that watercolor set.  When he was ten years old, he had his first commission, the sign for a butcher shop, which entailed a picture of a white bull silhouetted against a blue sky.

In addition to his sketches of combat, he proved himself an able writer when covering the Spanish-American War for Harpers, Scribner’s, and Leslie’s Weekly, traveling with Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders.  So began his successful career in magazine illustrations.  He devoted himself to being an illustrator to the disappointment of his private teacher, William Merritt Chase, who for some time thereafter refused to speak to Howard.  Then Howard retired from illustration in 1921 to devote himself to painting portraits.  His subjects included such noteworthies as Presidents Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge (and wife), and Herbert Hoover, also General John J. Pershing, the Prince of Wales, Benito Mussolini, the Italian Crown Prince of Umberto, Mrs. William Randolph Hearst, Amelia Earhart, and Will Rogers.  Howard died 4th March 1952 in his beloved apartment at the Hotel des Artiste, leaving behind several commissions in progress, including a portrait of Douglas MacArthur.

Perhaps his tour de force is “The Signing of the Constitution” painted in 1940.  He did considerable research to get costumes and portraits exactingly correct.  The mural shows only 39 of the 55 delegates.  Howard did not care to show the three delegate who did not sign nor the thirteen others who had left.  The work is displayed in the Capitol Rotunda along the east stairway of the House of Representatives wing.

But during these difficult and dangerous times, when access to our Federal buildings can be restricted, perhaps it would be best to go to Manhattan and eat at the CafĂ© des Artistes in the Hotel des Artiste.  For there you can eat well and drink wine while surrounded by six murals of happy nymphs from Howard Chandler Christy’s brush.  While you are there, look for Howard’s face peering out from behind table thirty-eight, a small portrait by his dear friend James Montgomery Flagg.