Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Charles Dana Gibson, Rudolf Eickemeyer, Jr., Evelyn Nesbit, and "The Eternal Question"

[September 27, 2010 - Changes made to this blog entry per ADDENDUM below]

This is a "Eurotrash or Eurotreasure?" departure, but since it's become my blog in general, and I've used plenty of Gibson girls to illustrate my Eurodance DJ set flyers, I feel I can indulge myself this one time.

Charles Dana Gibson's "The Eternal Question" [link] has long been believed to be a portrait of Evelyn Nesbit, the chorus girl and model who, a few years after Gibson's drawing was completed, found herself the center of a crime of passion that led to what is generally regarded as the first "Trial of the [20th] Century."

I think I have made a discovery. Last night, while looking through the Corbis website, a 1901/1902 image of Evelyn Nesbit jumped out at me [link]. I believe Gibson used this image as the basis for "The Eternal Question." I present my analysis below. No proportions were altered in any of the photographic images.

The eyelid is the most startling clue; the lighting and fold lines are nearly identical in the two images.

The interior of the ear forms a distinctive key-shape.

The lips and chin are nearly identical.

The two photos above are identically sized and angled. Increasing the size of Nesbit's hairdo along with the changed tilt of her head would have been changes made in order to emphasize Gibson's question mark. Although apparently doubled in size, that amazing sea of hair retains the same proportions and forms throughout.

The photos in the image above are also identically sized and angled. The facial features generally line up; there is a slight waver for the eyebrow and eye in my sizings (perhaps with more care I could align even those), but all else is a perfect match.

I think that the idea of Gibson working from a photo makes him an even better artist. He would have had stunning artistic insight to look at the photo, see that question mark potential there, and then fully realize that vision in his drawing. This is far more interesting to me than if he had sat Nesbit down in front of him and said, "OK, now make your hair into a question mark." :-D

So am I only the latest person to see this, or is this a new piece of insight into "The Eternal Question"?

ADDENDUM - September 27 - Paula Uruburu, who literally wrote the book on Evelyn Nesbit (the excellent American Eve [link]), kindly wrote back to me on this issue and offered something I could not bring to the table: real scholarship. :-D

First off, she informed me that the photograph was taken by Rudolf Eickemeyer, Jr. Eickemeyer took most of Nesbit's most famous shots, including "Tired Butterfly." [link]

Second, she agrees that Gibson must have seen this particular Eickemeyer photo, and complimented me on my "brilliant detective work." (I blush. Thank you, Paula!)

Third, there are not many profile shots of Nesbit to (literally) draw from.

But she also noted that Nesbit had also sat for Gibson in the flesh (thus I have deleted the lines in this blog entry where I had expressed doubts about this).

So, at this stage it seems to me that it went down like this: having been acquainted with her already, Nesbit came readily to Gibson's mind as he conceived of "The Eternal Question," and at some point in the creation of that drawing he turned to the Eickemeyer photograph to help fill in the details.


  1. I have a pencil drawing of the eternal question by a different artist dated 1904.It is 18x24 on artist board in orginal frame.I believe that I have the original.He may have been inspired by this drawing.

    1. I have a 1903 copyrighted Gibson print of the Eternal Question, so no you don't have the original.

    2. The person clearly stated it was by a different artist. Learn to read.

  2. Very cool; would be neat to see a photo of that drawing. :-)

  3. i dont see no damn question mark!!!!