Howard Chandler Christy and 1921 Mardi Gras

Carnival Queen Dorothy Clay approached the grand entrance of the Grunewald Hotel. The year was 1921—with Mardi Gras back in full swing—and she was preparing to have her portrait painted by the famous Howard Chandler Christy.1 He was visiting the city for the season to paint the maids and matrons of New Orleans society. After meeting the beautiful queen of Rex, Christy began the process of yet another one of his exquisite paintings. He captured every detail of her golden dress and elaborate jewelry that represented the grace and regality of Carnival queens—one of the biggest symbols of Mardi Gras.2

Carnival Queen Dorothy Clay painted by Christy in 1921

Organized Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans were cancelled during 1918 and 1919 due to the tragic events of World War I. It was feared that agents of the German Kaiser would get about the city in Carnival disguises, so dressing up or wearing masks was temporarily banned. In the years following the war, the party scene of New Orleans was a little slow to return due to the economy, prohibition, and lack of good spirits. 

A prominent figure of this era was American artist, Howard Chandler Christy. He was extremely well-known for his patriotic poster designs during World War I, advocating for young men to join the military. He ended up painting over 40 propaganda recruitment posters in an effort to advertise and bring attention to the war. Works like Gee, I Wish I Were a Man! and I Want You for the Navy became iconic images that are still seen today.3

Gee, I Wish I Were a Man! Painted by Christy in 1917

 Before the war, however, Christy’s main focus was painting women. In 1898, his painting, The Soldier’s Dream, was published in Scribner’s Magazine.4 The composition features a resting soldier smoking a pipe. The smoke takes the shape of a beautiful woman, who essentially becomes the prototype for Christy’s most famous creation—the “Christy Girl.” Similar to the “Gibson Girl” of the late nineteenth century, the Christy Girl embodied the new ideal American woman—confident, athletic, and beautiful.5 These paintings were wildly successful, largely because of what the Christy Girl meant for women. During this time, women were seen as submissive and demure; The Christy Girl, on the other hand, represented strength and independence. She helped make women see themselves as equals to men, and more women became professionals, feminists, and reformers than ever before. Christy eventually became so associated with beautiful women that he was selected to be the judge of the first ever Miss America Pageant in 1921.

When the war was over, Christy shifted his art style back to women and gradually progressed to portraiture. Because he was already a successful and established artist, Christy was able to paint several celebrities and politicians, including presidents like Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover. During the Mardi Gras season of 1921, Christy visited the city of New Orleans where his world-famous painting of wife, Nancy Palmer, was being hung in the Grunewald Hotel, along with several other of his works.6 While Nancy engaged in the Carnival festivities, Christy stayed at the hotel to paint portraits of social leaders and carnival queens. His upcoming presence in the city was all over the newspapers for months, and people throughout the city were ecstatic to have the chance to meet the widely celebrated artist.7

Christy’s many New Orleans inspired paintings glorified post-war Mardi Gras for people all over the country. During a time of anxiety and hesitation, his art captured the beauty and elegance of the Carnival scene—highlighting the lovely Carnival queens in particular. 

  1.  “A Royal Legacy Captured on Canvas.” Times-Picayune. February 13, 2015. America’s News Historical and Current.
  2. Carnival Queen Dorothy Clay by Howard Chandler Christy. n.d.
  3. Gee, I Wish I Were a Man! By Howard Chandler Christy. n.d.
  4. A Soldier’s Dream by Howard Chandler Christy. n.d.
  5. Erickson Living. “The Rise of American Illustrator Howard Chandler Christy.” Accessed November 23, 2020.
  6. “Painting Done by Howard Chandler Christy of His Wife.” New Orleans Item. January 30, 1921. America’s News – Historical and Current.
  7. “Mardi Gras Scenes By Master Artist Will Illustrate Stories.” New Orleans Item. February 9, 1921. America’s News – Historical and Current.

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