Love of beauty is taste. The creation of beauty is art.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
The female form is one of the most beautiful objects in all of God’s vast creation. Beauty is, of course, subjective. Even Rod Serling reminded us that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. But in the art of the classic pin-up girl, an idealistic beauty is pretty standard: Big, bright, lash-y eyes. A sly smile, gently pouted lip, or dazzling pearly whites. An hourglass figure, softly curving in and out at the waist. Silky, gleaming hair in red, brunette, blonde or raven, short and sassy or long and seductive.
Gil Elvgren, “Gentlemen Prefer…?”, 1963
Pin-ups are gorgeous. Idealized, stylized and perfect. But I don’t have any problem with this portrayal of women. The fact is, I adore pin-up art (I’ve even done a little pin-up creating myself) almost as much as I enjoy a fine art masterpiece by Caravaggio or Da Vinci.
The pin-up girl exudes this wonderful sense of play that’s shrouded in a light haze of mystery. She’s subtle sexy. I’m not a fan of partial or full-on nudity in pin-ups. (Be forewarned, there’s a bit of nudity ahead.) Part of what makes pin-up art so alluring is that the girls are covered up. There’s much to be said for leaving a little something to the imagination. If you give the whole show away, what is there to stick around for?
Fortunately, a good majority of pin-up art shies away from bare breasts and bottoms. In my opinion, a lot of stunning pin-up images are ruined by nudity, like these otherwise beautiful works by famous pin-up artists Fritz Willis (center) and Alberto Vargas:
And these are just mild examples of nudity. We can find many examples of full nudes, especially in Vargas’ pin-up portfolio.
Pin-up art was at its height during the 1940s and 50s, with artists producing these exquisitely suggestive images for magazines and advertisements. Each artist had his own style (though as you’ll see throughout this post, some artists showed distinct similarities), and looking back on the pin-up girls today, it’s not that difficult to tell which artist created what girls.
The mid-twentieth century produced a number of extremely talented artists whose main focus was the gorgeous pin-up girl: Alberto Vargas, Gil Elvgren, Fritz Willis, Pearl Frush, Lou Shabner, Ben Hur Baz, Al Buell, Al Moore, Vaughan Bass, Edward Runci, Joseph F. DeMartini, Bill Randall, Knute “KO” Munson, Freeman Elliot, Earl MacPherson, Art Frahm, and the list goes on.
My favourite pin-up: Gil Elvgren, “The Right Touch”, 1958
But no matter the artist, all pin-up girls have one thing in common: they embody the fantasy of catching a glimpse of what you’re really not supposed to see.
~ Alberto Vargas ~
Peruvian painter, Alberto Vargas (February 9, 1896 – December 30, 1982), is probably the most well known of all the great pin-up artists. Although not my personal favourite, he has been referred to as THE greatest pin-up artist by many, both in and out of the art world.
There’s no questioning his talent. His perfectly blended gradations of colour are the result of using an airbrush. You’d be hard pressed to find noticeable brush strokes on a Vargas piece. His ladies have a smooth softness about them that other pin-up artists have failed to replicate. Precision and minute details are trademark Vargas.
Some have tried though, and one artist in particular, came close. Joseph F. De Martini’s watercolour and airbrushed pin-ups are very similar in style to Vargas. Which isn’t all that surprising considering the two were friends and associates.
But even with the similarities, for the most part, it’s difficult to mistake one man’s work for the other’s. Vargas was a much better technical artist than De Martini, and his girls are more well developed and three-dimensional – they have more depth. The shadows are darker, the highlights are brighter. When you view their work side by side, the differences are easy to spot.
Alberto Vargas Girls
~ Gil Elvgren ~
Gil Elvgren, “Spotty Performance (Occupational Hazard; Stenographer)”, 1962
Gil Elvgren (March 15, 1914 – February 29, 1980) is responsible for painting literally hundreds of pin-ups. And he is, to me, the greatest and most important pin-up artist who ever lived. His girls are hands down my favourites. They’re classy, sexy, and many are cleverly named to reflect the scenes they’re painted in. The colours are bright and vibrant, and the girls are beautifully rendered with soft, touchable hair, and luscious curves.
Gil Elvgren, “Jeanette”, 1962
There is no mistaking an Elvgren pin-up. Unlike some of his famous counterparts (like Vargas), Elvgren worked in oils, not watercolour, which is what gives his paintings so much depth and substance. His girls are very well developed and have an opulent, glamourous tone, while never losing their sense of whimsy and play.
A huge percentage of Elvgren’s girls are adorned with the quintessential sexy accessory: dark thigh-high stockings and garter straps.
But regardless of attire, what makes a pin-up truly sexy is her demeanour and the tone of the scene she’s in. And that is why you DON’T need nudity in a pin-up to make it work. It’s that little twinkle in her eye, the look of surprise on her pretty face; it’s what she’s doing, and just that HINT of skin peeking out from under her skirt. She’s begging to be touched, and yet… she’s a work of art. And everyone knows you don’t touch a work of art. You appreciate and admire its beauty from afar.
There are two other artists whose work was clearly influenced by Elvgren’s style: Edward Runci (left) and Forest H. Clough (1910 – 1985) (right).
At a quick glance, you might be tempted to attribute both girls (also rendered in oils) to Mr. Elvgren’s talented hand. But upon closer inspection, you’ll notice the differences. Runci captures the voluminous glow of the skin, and his pin-up has an Elvgren-like well-developed face and alluring bedroom eyes. But notice how stiff she looks. Her posture, the pose, the angle of her arm. Even the drape of the fabric is in competition with the softness of her hair and face. And her body is a bit underdeveloped, with her forearms, hands and legs being less finished looking than her chest and shoulders. While she might be sexy, she’s really not very inviting.
Clough’s french maid has a gorgeous set of legs. Long and lean, with shadows and highlights in all the right places to accentuate her calves. But take a look at the rough-edged brush strokes throughout the piece. The lack of smooth, transitional blending between the black dress and the white highlights. And how harsh her lovely features appear. Overall, the work has a “choppy” appearance and lacks Elvgren’s smooth finesse.
~ Fritz Willis ~
Fritz Willis (1907 – January 13, 1979) has a unique style. Unlike the other artists I’ve mentioned so far, Willis’ pin-ups possess a much more understated beauty. The colours are more muted and the overall effect is very soft. He too worked mostly in oils, but at first glance, you might mistake the medium for pastels. For some of his earlier pin-ups, Fritz worked in a medium called gouache. This is a mix-it-yourself type of paint, similar to watercolour, but with additives to make the paint less transparent and more opaque.
His paintings have a sort of smeared quality about them, (especially the fabric in his backgrounds), which is similar to the appearance pastels give. Everything is very soft, airy and ethereal looking. And this effect works so nicely because his figures are still well-developed and finely rendered. There’s nothing “sloppy” about Willis’ pin-ups. Wispy brush strokes and a feathery glow help make his girls more beauty than bombshell. And unlike Elvgren’s lively, playful pin-ups, Willis’ girls are more subdued and relaxed, which is what really sets them apart from other pin-up art.
~ Duane Bryers ~
I should point out that not every great pin-up artist conformed to the typical standard of female beauty. Another of my favourite pin-up artists is Duane Bryers, whose beloved plus-size, red-headed pin-up girl, Hilda, will steal your heart.
Often portrayed in silly, awkward, or precarious positions, Hilda is the unconventional pin-up girl.
Sweet and sassy, this plump, cheeky, fiery-haired missy was the calendar queen of the 1950s. A little on the clumsy side but bubbling with charm, Hilda has been portrayed doing countless things: from dozing in the shade to piloting a sailboat, panning for gold, swimming and watermelon-eating, and unhappily painting a picture in the rain.
What a delightfully refreshing take on pin-ups! This a-typical beauty had confidence, often sporting nothing more than a bikini made of flowers, that were often falling off thanks to her playful antics. Bryers’s style was colourful and vibrant, which complemented Hilda’s personality perfectly. Of all the pin-up girls, Hilda best illustrates the importance of personality in a piece. Hilda has a soul and you can catch a little glimpse of it in every scene Bryers painted her in. She comes to life. And that’s what makes the difference between just a painting and a work of art.
Pin-ups have become something of a lost art. Yes, you can find artists today who will paint you a pin-up girl and do a darn good job of her, but artists specializing in pin-ups? As far as I know, there really aren’t any. But it makes sense. The job of classic pin-up art was to sell products. And in today’s electronic digital age, there isn’t much call for hand-painted advertising. And what a terrible shame that is.
Thankfully we have the works of these exceptional artists to look back on. The pin-up girl will live on. Their beauty is timeless, their appeal continues to span generations. I don’t look at these lovely ladies as derogatory or sexist, but I appreciate them for the beauty and talent they represent. It’s ART.
The world’s love affair with the art of the pin-up is still going strong. And so is mine.
A beautiful woman delights the eye; a wise woman, the understanding; a pure one, the soul.
~ Minna Antrim
And who says a woman can’t be all three?