He was born in Roxbury, Massachusetts, a talented youth his parents enrolled him in the Art Students League, Manhattan. He studied there for two years before leaving to find work. Peddling his pen-and-ink sketches he sold his first work in 1886 to John Ames Mitchell's Life magazine, his works appeared weekly in the magazine for over thirty years. But he also quickly built a wider reputation, his works appearing in all the major New York publications and also Harpers, Scribners and Colliers
The development of the "Gibson Girl" from 1890 and her nationwide fame made Gibson respected and wealthy. he married society woman Irene Langhorne in 1895. Almost unrestricted merchandising saw his distinctive sketches appear in many forms. He became editor of Life after the death of Mitchell in 1918 and eventually owner. The popularity of the Gibson Girl faded after WW I and Gibson himself moved into working with oils. He retired in 1936.