Gil Elvgren: king of the pinup artists

Oil on canvas painting by Gil Elvgren, titled ‘Bear Facts (A Modest Look; Bearback Rider),’ 1962, signed lower left, 30 inches by 24 inches, est. $50,000-$75,000, sold for $191,200 at an auction held May 6, 2010 by Heritage Auctions. Image courtesy Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK – The 20th century produced many fine pinup artists and “pretty girl” illustrators, but few enjoyed the success, star power and name recognition of Gil Elvgren (American, 1914-1980). His semi-naughty, whimsical depictions of scantily clad ladies were tame and always done with a wink and a nod. They were never considered pornographic. His closest rival in the genre was Joaquin Vargas (Peruvian-American, 1896-1982), whose work appeared in Esquire magazine and later Playboy. Original artworks by Elvgren and Vargas can fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars.

While Vargas was a watercolor illustrator, Elvgren was a trained fine artist, working in oil on canvas. Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, Elvgren studied art at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and later the American Academy of Art in Chicago. After graduation he joined Stevens and Gross, Chicago’s most prestigious ad agency, as an artist. In 1937, Elvgren began painting calendar pin-ups for Louis F. Dow, one of America’s leading publishing companies, during which time he created about 60 works on 28-by-22-inch canvases, distinguished by a printed signature.

 

World War II gave a boost to Elvgren’s burgeoning career, as many of his pinup works were reproduced as nose art on military aircraft. While the war was still raging, he was approached by Brown and Bigelow, a company that still dominates the field in producing calendars and advertising specialties. He was associated with Brown and Bigelow from 1945 to 1972. There, he began working with 30-by-24 inch canvases, a format he would use for the next 30 years. He also began signing his work in cursive, another trademark.

 

Elvgren was a commercial success. He lived in various locations and was active from the 1930s to the 1970s. In addition to Brown and Bigelow, his clients included Coca-Cola, General Electric and the Sealy Mattress Co. During the 1940s and 1950s he illustrated stories for a host of magazines, including The Saturday Evening Post and Good Housekeeping. But pinup art was still Elvgren’s bread and butter. He painted from live models, and some were famous actresses, such as Myrna Hansen, Donna Reed, Barbara Hale, Arlene Dahl, Lola Albright and Kim Novak.

Coca-Cola poster from 1954 featuring artwork by Gil Elvgren, 27in x 16in, sold for $1,353 at an auction held Sept. 10, 2016, by Morphy Auctions. Image courtesy Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

In his book, The Great American Pinup, Louis K. Meisel features 77 artists and 900 illustrations. And where does Elvgren rank amongst his peers? “If you were to ask them, I would say 95 percent would undoubtedly select Elvgren as their favorite,” Meisel said. “He’s simply the best pinup artist in the history of American illustration. His influence, both as an artist and a teacher, was extensive. He was prolific and important enough to support a major book” (Gil Elvgren, All His Glamorous American Pin-Ups). That book effort took 10 years to compile and publish.

Meisel said Elvgren was a fine artist in the true sense, working in oil on canvas. “His faces, figures and situational compositions were rare then and continue to be so throughout the history of the genre. He actually painted very few nudes. Beauty of the overall painting was of paramount importance to him. Amusement at the situations of the models was next. Evoking a sexual response from the viewer was not something he was looking to achieve. From the 1930s through the 1970s, he produced over 500 paintings of beautiful women. All were works of art.”

Oil on canvas painting by Gil Elvgren, titled ‘Haughty Girl with Glove,’ unsigned, 16in x 12in, in an antique wood frame, sold for $8,610 at an auction held May 20, 2012, by DuMouchelles. Image courtesy DuMouchelles and LiveAuctioneers

As the years passed, Elvgren’s influence was felt by dozens of younger artists who apprenticed with him, studied his work or otherwise sought to emulate “the master.” He not only influenced artists working in the pinup tradition and other illustrators, he had an effect on artists outside his sphere, such as the Pop artist Mel Ramos and the Photorealist painter John Kacere. Meisel’s book Gil Elvgren, All His Glamorous American Pin-Ups, was a tribute effort, made possible with the help of a co-author (Charles G. Martignette) and a mutual friend of both (Art Amsie).

Oil on canvas painting by Gil Elvgren, titled ‘Nobody Can Pinch Me!’ (1946) signed ‘Elvgren.’ 30¼in x 24¼in, sold for $49,400 at an auction held July 20, 2017 by Wright. Image courtesy Wright and LiveAuctioneers

Amsie was especially helpful in this regard. As someone who was close to Elvgren for many years, he actually introduced Meisel and Martignette to the artist’s work and provided them with his paintings. Amsie was also a friend of Bettie Page, the legendary American pinup model (who he photographed in the 1950s). In the 1960s and 1970s, Amsie owned what was then the only gallery devoted to pinup art. As Elvgren was dying of cancer, Amsie promised his friend he’d fulfill Elvren’s one wish: to have his work compiled into a book. That wish was indeed fulfilled.

Oil on canvas painting by Gil Elvgren, titled ‘Intermission’ (1966), 30in x 24in,  Brown & Bigelow calendar artwork, 34 inches by 28 inches framed, sold for $20,000 at an auction held Sept. 28, 2019, by Concept Art Gallery. Image courtesy Concept Art Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Meisel said he purchased his first original Elvgren pinup painting around 1972 – “for $300, from a guy who bought 67 of them in a bankruptcy settlement. He paid $9 each for them. By 1982, they were selling for around $3,000. Before both my books came out, during the ’90s, they were topping the $25,000 mark. Then, in the early 2000s, they reached $200,000 and even $300,000. But after the crash of 2008 there was a big drop in prices, and today, with COVID, acquiring art as an investment seems to have gone out of fashion. To me, that’s just ignorant.”

Not all Elvgren artwork was pinup art. This oil on canvas by Elvgren titled ‘Five Little Sweethearts,’ an illustration of the famous Dionne quintuplets done in 1937 for Brown & Bigelow, 40in x 31in, sold for CA $10,455 (US $7,812) at an auction held Nov. 30, 2016, by A.H. Wilkens Auctions & Appraisals in Toronto. Image courtesy A.H. Wilkens Auctions & Appraisals and LiveAuctioneers

As a young, up-and-coming artist, Gil Elvgren was strongly influenced by the early “pretty girl” illustrators, such as Charles Dana GibsonAndrew Loomis and Howard Chandler Christy. Then, as he found fame and fortune, he himself was an inspiration to a whole new generation of artists, who either aspired to carve out their own niche in the genre of pinup art, or use what they saw in Elvgren’s style and manner of painting and incorporate those elements into their own work. It’s the circle of life in the art world. And for Gil Elvgren, he’s the undisputed king of pinup artists.