You can't begin to understand Howard Chandler Christy until you understand those two exclamation points.
"GEE!! I wish I Were a Man," says the World War I poster in the Christy show at the National Portrait Gallery opening today.
The picture shows a saucy girl in a sailor suit, apparently doing a grind, and she is trying to tell you to join the Navy. Some would call it grossly sexist. Some would call it radically feminist. What matters, however, is that it has two exclamation points.
Because the girl is a Christy Girl, made famous by the illustrator from 1912 to 1920.
Successor to the 1890's Gibson Girl, this outdoorsy, clear-eyed, fun-loving nymphet helped bring the American woman out of the corset. She was the older sister of John Held's somewhat wilder and scattier Flapper (who drank, you know). A Victorian woman might have used an exclamation point in her letters, and certainly underline a lot. But two points -- now that's something new. That's a new kind of woman, insouciant, wide-eyed, excited just to be alive.
Only the first part of Christy's long career is reviewed in this mini-show, featuring about 10 key works, which lasts until Aug. 3. Several sketches of soldiers and sailors from the Spanish-American War represent his first phase: The combat artist went behind the lines in Cuba to do the work that got him lionized on his return to New York.
There, he discovered girls. Fellow artist Charles Dana Gibson sent him Nancy May Palmer, aged 16, in 1912, and she became his model for the next seven years. He was 39 and married when they met.
Divorcing, he married her in 1919, by which time he was thoroughly established as a pop illustrator and poster artist. On the seventh floor of the Hotel des Artistes he built a vast studio, where he lived the last 35 years of his life (and where his widow's second husband, a widower himself now, still lives).
Christy painted the lush nudescape murals for the Cafe des Artistes downstairs. A student of the American Post-Impressionist William Merritt Chase, Christy could turn out a wicked nude. But after 1920, he switched to celebrity portraits, painting everyone from Grace Coolidge to Mussolini. There is also a memorable, Monet-like country landscape done in 1940 under the influence of the Long Island school.
But it is the early Christy that we see in this show, a young artist reveling in the energy of his own self-confident line.
The lettering itself on the recruiting posters has a raw, freehand effect as though sketched with a dry brush. These famous images (another uniformed girl taunts, "If you want to fight -- join the Marines") were part of the national scenery during World War I, along with James Montgomery Flagg's celebrated "Uncle Sam Wants YOU" and works by Gibson. Christy's remain the most interesting.
Where, for instance, did those fantastically muscled artillerymen come from in yet another World War I Navy poster? Could Christy have seen some early Soviet socialist realism paintings?
But let's not go overboard. It is for his women that Christy will be remembered. In 1913 Nancy Palmer got scores of proposals as the original model. And in 1921 the artist, then 48, was invited to be the sole judge of the first Miss America contest in Atlantic City.
He must have known something.