Teaching art is like teaching mathematics or anything else. There are certain basic principles which anyone can learn. You can teach anyone to draw and paint, but you can’t make them an artist.
~ Bill Mosby
Were he still alive, pin-up artist extraordinaire Gil Elvgren would be 101 years old today. Born in Saint Paul, Minnesota on March 15, 1914, Elvgren was a true master in the art world. His career began in the mid-1930s and lasted more than forty years. Dubbed “The Norman Rockwell of Cheesecake”, his pin-up girls still grace calendars to this very day.
Elvgren is best remembered for his beautiful pin-up girls, but they were certainly not his only claim to fame. Much of his work was in the world of advertising. Magazine illustrations, catalogue covers, and a cornucopia of popular advertisements for Coca-Cola (just to name a few) make Elvgren’s professional résumé an impressive one.
The up-and-coming artist’s big break came only weeks after his first commission (a series of fashion catalogue covers) — Elvgren was hired by calendar company Brown & Bigelow to paint a portrait of the original child-stars, the Canadian-born Dionne Quintuplets. The painting was first published for a Brown & Bigelow calendar in 1937 and it made him an overnight success.
Gil also worked for B&B’s largest competitor, the Louis F. Dow Calendar Company, which is where his pin-up work truly began. While these early-years pin-ups aren’t among my personal favourites, it’s still not hard to see why Elvgren’s work was quickly growing in demand.
During World War II, he was asked by General Electric to do some work for their War Effort campaign. Elvgren’s illustrations (and not just pin-up girls) proved a valuable source of morale and encouragement for the troops as well as those left at home.
He is a fine painter; as a draftsman there are few who can equal him. He has amazing hands. They don’t look like the hands of an artist. He’s built like a football player, and a pencil is almost buried in that paw of his, but the touch he has and the subtle variations he is capable of can only be compared to the sensitive skill of a great surgeon.
~ Bill Mosby on Gil Elvgren
In 1944, Brown & Bigelow offered Elvgren the opportunity to work for the company as a staff artist. From 1945 until his retirement in 1972, Elvgren worked for B&B. The arrangement meant that he could continue illustrating for magazines and doing advertising work for Coca-Cola. He also had the freedom to accept any other advertising assignments so long as they didn’t conflict with his B&B work.
Charlie Ward, president of Brown & Bigelow, played a large part in making Elvgren’s name and style immediately recognizable. He marketed “Gil Elvgren” — not just his art, but the artist himself. Elvgren’s work would not be confined to calendars, magazines and billboards. His pin-ups took on a life of their own, appearing on things like decks of cards and lamp shades. B&B even manufactured a fabulous Elvgren Girl plastic letter opener in 1958.
There’s no question that Gil Elvgren knew what went into making a beautiful woman. In 1951, Modern Man magazine did a feature story on the artist and asked what he thought about American women. “[They are] infinitely smarter today. They are more beautiful than ever before. They are more natural. They are not tying themselves like they used to. And they are not looking like boys any more, thank God.”
I think it’s every artist’s dream to be successful in his own lifetime. Elvgren is one of the few artists in history who did just that. He was in such great demand that he had to turn down, dare I say, most of the work he was being offered.
I would venture to say that nearly every artist at the time was inspired by Gil Elvgren’s incredible work. And I believe his paintings will continue to inspire for generations to come. He was a master in every sense of the word. His pin-up girls are perfection. Beautiful, fun, and most importantly, full of life. Every Elvgren girl possesses a vibrant personality all her own — an intangible quality that most artists fail to reproduce in their work.
Elvgren is to me the greatest artist of the 20th century; not just an illustrator, but an artist. This is how Clair Fry, art director at Brown & Bigelow, described the artist and man Gil Elvgren in a 1950s Figure Quarterly magazine interview.
“Gil is one of the most able draftsmen and painters in the commercial field. That, actually, is only a small part of the story. There are many able draftsmen and painters who have never risen above complete obscurity. I suppose, considering the difference, it is like two men, each having a fine set of carpenter’s tools, the tools being comparable in every respect; one of them has a clear-cut plan of the house he is going to build in his mind, while the other man with equally fine equipment, works without that clearly defined understanding of an objective.
Gil has excellent taste. That is a commodity hard to come by. Many artists with great ability never are accepted because line and pattern, excellent though they may be from the literal point of view, add up to an effect that is clumsy, dull, and lacking that particular essential which in real life makes one particular girl stand out in sharp contrast to the great average.
Gil also has wit. Not only in his situations having a humourous turn, but even more in the ingenuity and inventiveness shown in his colour schemes, poses, gestures, and all that goes into a lively, exciting statement that captures universal attention. His work is sincere and very honest. The reaction to Gil’s paintings is that here is a real girl. The carefully thought out gestures and expressions are done with such mastery that they convey the exact meaning Gil intended without the phoney quality that exists in such a vast percentage of commercial painting.
Gil has his finger on the pulse of the current evaluation of feminine beauty. This is a most important factor. If you look at the pictures of pretty women from Rubens on, you find a distinct change in the yardstick of various eras as to what is and what isn’t beauty. Gil knows exactly what the ingredients are to touch the fancy of that judgement at this moment. Maybe, when everything else has been said, that knowledge and the ability to translate it is the most important factor in Gil’s outstanding success.”
And what an outstanding success he was. Happy birthday to one of the greatest artists the world will ever know. I think that in many ways, Gil Elvgren was himself the true work of art.
Note: Header image is Elvgren’s illustration for the story “So It’s Dreams You Want” which appeared in McCall’s magazine, March 1946.