Pin-Up Art by Alberto Vargas (1896 - 1982)


Pin-Up Art by Alberto Vargas (1896 - 1982)
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From the time Esquire first introduced America to the Varga Girl, in 1940, the name Vargas has been synonymous with pin-up and glamour art. In fact, the word "vargas" has actually been applied to almost every kind of pin-up subject - a fitting tribute to the most famous and prolific glamour artist of all time.


Born February 9, 1896, in Peru, Alberto Vargas was the son of a renowned photographer, Max Vargas, who had taught him how to use an airbrush by the time he was thirteen. In 1 911, while accompanying Max on a trip to Paris, Alberto came upon the famous magazine La Vie Parisienne, and its sensuous front covers by Raphael Kirchner made a lasting impression on him. He studied in Zurich and Geneva before leaving Europe because of the war and arriving on Ellis Island in October 1916.

Vargas’’ first encounter with America happened about noon at Broadway and Fourteenth Street, when he was suddenly surrounded by a lunchtime crowd of smartly dressed office workers. Mesmerized by their grace, sophistication, and beauty the young artist decided he would spend his life glorifying the American Girl.

Within twenty-four hours, Vargas found himself commissioned to paint twelve watercolour portraits of the leading stars of the 1919 Ziegfeld Follies for the lobby of the New Amsterdam Theatre. Yet, although he was in the company of the most beautiful girls in the world, he knew there was only one woman for him: Anna Mae Clift, a showgirl with the rival Greenwich Village Follies. For the next twelve years, Vargas painted all the Ziegfeld stars, including names such as Billy Burke, Nita Naldi, Marilyn Miller, Paulette Goddard, Ruth Etting, Eddie Cantor, and W C. Fields. He soon developed a friendship with Ziegfeld, who let the young artist call him ’"Ziggy’", a name used only by the impresario’’s closest friends.

Vargas continued to paint Hollywood stars while he worked for the magazine. His 1941 movie poster of Betty Grable in Moon Over Miami was a great success; among the other leading ladies he painted were such stars as Jane Russell, Ann Sheridan, Ava Gardner Linda Darnell, Marlene Dietrich, Loretta Young, and Marilyn Monroe.

During the early and mid- 1950s, Vargas took on many commercial assignments, including a pin-up of Shelley Winters for the RKO film Behave Yourself, a deck of Vargas Girl playing cards called ’"Vargas Vanities’", and a series of pin-ups for the pocket-sized British magazine Men Only. In 1957, Playboy magazine published a pictorial feature on Vargas’’ nudes, which drew the attention of publisher Hugh Hefner In August 1958, Vargas and Anna Mae travelled to Lima, Peru, for a highly successful exhibition of his paintings. They were greeted upon their return with a personal invitation from Hefner to have Vargas’’ work appear monthly in Playboy.

Embarking on this momentous association in 1960, Vargas was to paint 152 works for Playboy during this period, adapting to new moral standards and more explicit sexuality. Vargas painted only two front- cover images for Playboy during his long reign as the magazine’’s primary artist: a cut-out
figure of a girl in a bathing suit that was part of a montage created by art director Reid Austin in 1961 and the cover for the March 1965 issue.

During the Esquire years, from 1940 to 1946, Vargas usually prepared a total of four preliminary studies for each published painting. Three of these were drawn on a fine tissue paper, the fourth on a heavy vellum parchment paper. The three tissues showed increasing detail from one state to the next until the parchment state which, because of the paper’’s colour and texture, was almost identical to the final painting. These studies would often be drawn with the model as a nude, Vargas simply adding the clothing to the final painting for publication. At Playboy, Vargas did one tissue and occasionally a few, parchment studies for each published painting.

When Vargas\’ wife passed away in November 1974, the artist lost much of his interest in painting and in life. Towards the end of the 1970s, he worked on an autobiography with Reid Austin, Vargas (Harmony Books). His career was revived somewhat when he painted an album cover, Condy-0, for The Cars; he also designed two other record album jackets for singer Bernadette Peters. He died on December 30, 1982, in Los Angeles.