Many Maryland alumni can tell you about the rewards of late nights spent studying in the library—good grades, passing a tough exam, making friends. But for James Philip Head (ECON ’92), a true treasure was found in the stacks.

“I was studying in Hornbake late at night, when I saw the gilt edges of a book in the corner of the stacks. It caught my eye,” Mr. Head said.

It was a folio of the works of Charles Dana Gibson, creator of the “Gibson Girl” archetype of feminine beauty. Mr. Head began to study Gibson and his contemporaries, and eventually came across the works of American commercial and portrait artist Howard Chandler Christy.

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"2416","attributes":{"alt":"Head book","class":"media-image","height":"480","style":"font-size: 1rem; line-height: 1.6; width: 432px; height: 480px; border-width: 0px; border-style: solid; margin: 1px; float: left;","width":"432"}}]]Mr. Head instantly admired Christy’s work, which ranged from advertisements to WWII posters to fanciful book illustrations to presidential portraits. That admiration has led to a lifetime of art appreciation, research, and Mr. Head’s new book, An Affair with Beauty—The Mystique of Howard Chandler Christy: The Magic of Youth.

“Christy has been somewhat neglected until now,” Mr. Head said. “His works are so beautiful, so full of life and color—and his life is so interesting, between the famous people he called friends and marriages to two of his famous models—that I had to tell his story.”

Christy was known for his idealized portrayal of feminine beauty during the Jazz Age. He painted beautiful women—for advertisements for brands like Lucky Strike cigarettes, or war posters, book and magazine illustrations. He was also a highly sought-after portrait artist. Because of the social circles he moved in, Christy painted many famous subjects, including Amelia Earhart and President Warren G. Harding. He quickly became one of the most popular commissioned artists of the time.

“People paid between twenty and thirty thousand dollars in 1920s currency—more like two hundred thousand dollars in today’s currency—to have Christy immortalize them in paint,” Mr. Head said. “They paid this much because he was known for making people more beautiful than they actually were. It wasn’t necessarily about flattery—it’s because of his lush and colorful style. He could capture the person’s spirit, their inner beauty—that’s what came through, that’s what makes his work so unique.”

His work immortalized not only his subjects, but an entire era of dramatic change in American culture.

“He was working in an age of modern art that was so sweeping, so compelling, it left a lot of artists in its wake. I think his contemporaries like Louis Comfort Tiffany and Norman Rockwell might have also been forgotten, but for the fact that their families worked diligently to build legacies for them.

Mr. Head has worked for 10 years to build a legacy for Christy. He worked closely with Christy’s descendants, with the families of early collectors, and even with his former models to find source materials, correspondence and works of art to include in the book.

“This isn't a story where the pieces were all in one place—these letters, these works of art, these sources were found in the backs of drawers, the bottoms of closets, and in the memories of Christy’s models,” Mr. Head said. “It’s been an almost magical process. Just when I would discover something that was missing, the phone would ring, and it was someone who had been recommended to me by another interview subject. Pieces started to come to me.”

Mr. Head has also spent, at various times, nearly a month at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, which now is home to the Howard Chandler Christy Papers collection.

Maryland Days

Born in Cincinnati, Mr. Head and his family eventually moved to Maryland. Mr. Head became interested in art and art history while attending high school in Rockville. He was on the “It’s Academic” team; Mr. Head was responsible for studying famous works of art and artists, and related history. At UMD, he minored in history and majored in economics.

Mr. Head initially came to Maryland because his sister, Laura Head Atkinson went here as journalism student, and he knew UMD to have a beautiful campus and a good reputation.

“It was relatively close to home, but far enough away that I was having my own experience,” Mr. Head said. “Some of the fondest memories of my life were made here at Maryland.”

Economics was a good fit for Mr. Head, who also had thought about pursuing engineering.

“I did well in economics. I had a fairly high GPA, and my economics background has certainly been helpful in terms of my law practice, which involves finances and estate planning.”

A Love of Law

After graduation, Mr. Head went on to earn a J.D. from GW Law and an LL.M. from Georgetown. He has long been a partner with Williams Mullen in the firm’s Tysons Corner, Va., office. He focuses his practice on estate planning, estate and trust administration, fiduciary litigation, tax, gift and estate tax controversy, business planning, and other general business law matters.  He also guides businesses in succession and transactional matters, and represents banks and fiduciaries in state and Federal courts throughout Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, with respect to all areas of trust and estate disputes.

“Law was in my blood. My grandfather was a lawyer,” Mr. Head said. “I wanted to help people, and the law allows me to do that every day. Legal education also refined my writing and public speaking abilities.”

Mr. Head’s love of art and training in art history has also helped him in his law practice, as he has guided clients on appraisals, auctions and insurance related to their art collections. He has an eye for finding treasure.

“I once had a client who had one painting and one sculpture that they believed to be from the Renaissance era. These pieces had been appraised for about $1.2 million for the painting and $100,000 for the sculpture, many years prior to my viewing them,” he said. “I took a look at the pieces, and advised them to get a new appraisal. Sure enough, these pieces were much more valuable than the owners realized—the painting was actually valued at about $15 million, and the sculpture at about $5 million. The National Gallery of Art was interested in the sculpture. Naturally, the new valuations significantly changed the estate planning process and the related tax implications.”

The Road Ahead

Mr. Head is the proud owner of his own valuable collection of Christy’s art—he owns more than 30 of his works.

Now, Mr. Head is taking the book on the road, with book tour stops in Ohio, which also is Mr. Chrsty’s home state. Then, it’s on to book and media events in New York and in Washington, D.C.

“The more I learn about Howard Chandler Christy, the more I realize I don’t know,” Mr. Head said. “I’m so excited to travel, to talk about this book, and to meet with people who appreciate his work and want to know more about such a fascinating artist.”

James Head