A Brief History of Pin-Up Art: Alberto Vargas

Alberto Vargas career highlights the low and highs of Pin-Up art within the last 100 years as well as its cultural effects on American societal norms. From Ziegfeld Follies to Esquire to Playboy, Vargas captured the imagination of the nation with a touch of glamour.

How did Alberto Vargas get started?

In the early 1910s, a Peruvian artist by the name of Joaquin Alberto Vargas y Chavez was studying art in Geneva and Paris. However, Vargas apprenticed as a photographer to follow in his father’s footsteps rather than a fine artist. It was under his father’s tutelage and as an assistant in a London photography studio that he learned the art of the airbrush. The break out of World War I forced Vargas to immigrate to the US where he switched from photography to watercolor and airbrush. It was during these first few years in America when the artist met Anna Mae, a model and actress who he would later marry. 

Learn more about Alberto Vargas original pin up art values. Read the bio, see past sale prices and bid on George Petty art for sale.

Alberto Vargas Pin-Ups of the Ziegfeld Follies

In 1919, Flo Ziegfeld contracted Vargas to paint his Ziegfeld Follies. Ziegfeld did something surprising – he managed to turn risqué burlesque and cabaret scene rarely conversed outside of the gentlemen’s club into mainstream Broadway entertainment. Vargas capitalized on this cultural change – sharpening his skills on the curves of the famous dancers and actresses of the Ziegfeld Follies for magazines, newspapers, calendars, and advertisements (fig. 1).

Fig. 1 Alberto Vargas Broadway Showgirl, 1928 Sold for $81,250

What is pin up art? The term pin-up is rather straightforward. It refers to an image that an individual “Pin-Up” on their wall. However, the contemporary use of Pin-Up is closely related to another subject – one that “I know it when I see it.” Nevertheless, Pin-Up art has a rich history – one that skirts risqué and highlights cultural change within American societal and cultural norms. The term begins at the turn of the century with the burlesque scene and the golden age of print media. 

In turn, these magazines and newspapers spread this cultural phenomenon across the country adding a lot more glamour and sex to the contemporary standard of beauty. The artist worked for Ziegfeld for over a dozen years – only leaving when the Great Depression closed the Follies for good. Many of Vargas’ models began to appear in the next cultural movement that was not negatively affected by the economy – Film. Again, Vargas capitalized on the trend. Moving to Hollywood, he began to create artwork for every major movie studio. The artist painted portraits of famous actresses such as Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, and Hedy Lamarr (fig. 2). However, Vargas walked away from a Hollywood career due to a Union Dispute. 

Fig. 2 Alberto Vargas Portrait of Jane Russell, 1942 Sold for $40,000

When did Alberto Vargas first paint the Varga Girl?

Less than a year later, the artist, signing a contract without reading, was picked up by Esquire Magazine in 1940. It was here, that Vargas and his ‘Varga Girl’ would become a household name (fig. 3).  

Fig. 3 Alberto Vargas Vargas Girl, 1946 Sold for $77,675 

Vargas was hired by Esquire to replace George Petty who had too many demands and a hefty salary. From 1940-46, Alberto Vargas would create 180 works for the magazine. Many a love-lorn World War II soldier read Esquire and appreciated Vargas hyper-realistic watercolors of beautiful women. Many of his images were not only pinned up at barracks but copied onto planes and automobiles. Vargas would also draw unique ‘mascots’ for any military unit who asked. However, the federal government did not approve of these images and in retaliation removed Esquire Magazine’s second-class mailing permit. The case went to the supreme court and Esquire won – only furthering the publicity of the Varga Girl. However, Vargas began to struggle to keep up with his one painting a week as required by his contract.  Exhausted, Vargas sued Esquire in 1946 to escape the demanding contract and keep the ‘Varga Girl’ name. After a four-year battle, the artist lost and struggled to make ends meet until the late 1950s when he was hired by previous Esquire employee.  

Albert Vargas Playboy pin ups

Hugh Hefner, like Ziegfeld, would be a key player in changing the “societal norm.” Hefner began his magazine career at Esquire as a copywriter but quickly left in 1952. The next year, Hefner published the first issue of Playboy Magazine featuring pre-career nude photos of Marylin Monroe. It was a smashing success. Vargas was hired by Hefner in 1959 and would go on to paint over 152 paintings for the magazine with only a verbal agreement between the two men (fig. 4). 

Fig. 4 Alberto Vargas Trick or Treat, Playboy, October 1967 Sold for $100,000

Unlike the subtle Esquire, Hefner’s mission was to show that sex and lust are good and normal. It was a clear stance in the well-debated issue of ‘obscenity’ and the first amendment in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Therefore, the Vargas’ paintings from this period are far more blatantly sexual than any before – much to the artist’s embarrassment. Playboy Magazine did not stop with just sex – it began to question other societal norms spreading even more risqué ideas such as contraception, integration, and homosexual rights.  

After the death of his life long love and wife, Anna Mae, Vargas produced less and less artwork until his death in 1987. Rather unsurprisingly, the artist is often overlooked in contrast to his contemporaries due to his risqué subject matter. The path of Vargas’ career follows the high and lows of the 20th century from the roaring ‘20s glamour, the Great Depression, World War II, and the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Alberto Vargas skill and importance is unquestionable if nor for itself, then as a reflection of the times he lived. 

Collecting clues for Alberto Vargas original pin up art

  • Any Ziegfeld Follies work will be prior to 1930, be on the lookout for the quintessential 1920s bob hairstyle. They will also have more glamorous details – lace, jewelry, patterned clothing. Finding works from this period that are in good condition are rare and extremely valuable. 
  • The majority of the Esquire Magazine works currently belong to the Spencer Museum of Art, however, a few escaped. Try to get a work signed “Varga” rather than “Vargas” for a rare treat.
  • The Legacy Nudes were completed in the 1950s, although a few were published in 1957 Playboy. 12 were set aside to be sold after the artist’s death to support his beloved Anna Mae.
  • While the Varga Girl from Esquire has more historical importance, the Playboy works, more watercolor than airbrush, are the height of the artist’s talent. 
  • The San Francisco Art Exchange sold the artist’s estate including the unpublished 12 Legacy Nudes. On the back of the original work, there are often handwritten notes from the artist or red and white labels with the SFAE notes. Often the Artist’s notes on the model are wrong and the SFAE correct – too many beautiful women. 
  • The artist occasionally went back and changed details – sometimes you will see a 1940s woman with 1970s platform heels. Don’t be alarmed, but be aware. 
  • In general, Vargas original are the toughest to take care of because they are often on paper or illustration board. Be sure to frame under UV protected or Museum Glass to prevent previous discoloration. Check with your framer that they are using acid free archival mounting and matting. Don’t be afraid of issues in the background – as long as it is not in the figure or distract from the figure, it doesn’t affect the value. 
  • Unframe your artwork – often illustrators and pinup artist have humorous dialogue with their printers in the margins “can we lower the towel here?” “how bout that curve?” 

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Posted by Meagen McMillan

Jr Specialist and Cataloger, Fine & Decorative Arts

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