A Brief History of Pin-Up Art: Gil Elvgren

Gil Elvgren is considered the most successful Pin-Up artist of the 20th Century. Elvgren applied the commercial mass appeal of advertisement art and the hint of humour to Pin-Up creating images that encapsulate a time and place in American history.

What was Gil Elvgren famous for?

Despite numerous famed Pin-Up artists, Gil Elvgren is often considered the best Pin-Up artist of all time. Elvgren quickly became successful after graduating from the American Academy of Art in Chicago. In the 1937, Elvgren accepted a calendar contract with Louis F. Dow for 60 Pin-Ups (Fig. 1). His calendars were very successful amongst the military in WWII, only Alberto Vargas Pin-Ups could compare in popularity amongst the soldiers. 

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Gil Elvgren pin up girl
Fig 1. Gil Elvgren Peek-a-View, 1940 Sold for $101,500

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 golden age of print media. 

What painting technique did Gil Elvgren use?

Elvgren was very careful in composition – selecting situation, model, and lighting. Elvgren would first photograph the scene, then sketch a preliminary interpretation, and finally utilizing the photograph and sketch, begin to paint. This photograph to painting technique was utilized by many successful illustrators in the 20th century including Haddon Sundblom and Norman Rockwell. By using this method, Elvgren was able to capture these beautiful women with realistic detail and lush brushwork personifying of the All American Girl. 

Gil Elvgren Career

After leaving Dow, the publishing company still had complete ownership of the paintings often re-published the works, changing clothing details and backgrounds (Fig. 2 below).

gil elvgren pin up girl

In 1940, Elvgren joined Chicago’s prestigious Stevens and Gross advertisement agency. It was at Stevens and Gross that Gil Elvgren met his mentor and friend, Haddon Sundblom. While working with Sundblom, Elvgren worked alongside other well-known illustrators such as Al Buell and Andrew Loomis. Elvgren eventually took over Sundblom’s Coca-Cola advertisements – large shoes to fill considering Sundblom created the first Coca-Cola Santa Claus. In World War II, Elvgren also created images for the Red Cross and War Effort Campaigns. 

In 1944, Elvgren began his 30 year career with Brown & Bigelow publishing. Working alongside other Pin-Up greats such as Earl Moran, Zoe Mozert, and Rolf Armstrong, Elvgren created a minimum of twenty pinups a year. It was at Brown & Bigelow that Elvgren’s style began to fully bloom. His already fabulous Pin-Ups began to have more movement, expression, and glamour as well as a sense of humor. Elvgren depicted women doing everyday activities from baking to hanging a picture frame (Fig. 3 and Fig. 4). He also mastered glamour scenes filled with silk and fur (Fig. 5 and Fig. 6).  The artist also occasionally mimicked popular images from other illustrators such as Norman Rockwell (Fig. 7). 

Gil Elvgren Pin Up Girls

gil evgren pin up art
Fig. 3 Gil Elvgren Let’s Eat Out, 1967 Sold for $104,500
gil evgren pin up art
Fig. 4 Gil Elvgren Wrong Nail, 1967 Sold for $146,500
gil evgren pin up art
Fig. 5 Gil Elvgren Thinking of You, 1962 Sold for $209,000
gil evgren pin up art
Fig. 6 Gil Elvgren Bear Facts, 1962 Sold for $191,200
gil evgren pin up art
Fig. 7 Gil Elvgren High and Shy, 1967 Sold for $161,000

Did Gil Elvgren paint nude pin up girls?

No matter the decade, Elvgren was able to capture the beautiful, flirtatious female in any situation. However, the artist was allowed to paint one full nude each year – his first Nymph was completed in 1945 (released in 1946) and was larger than his usual paintings measuring 36 x 30 inches (Fig. 8). It was so popular that the company produced a special card deck for the Christmas season.

gil evgren pin up art
Fig. 8 Gil Elvgren Nymph, 1946 Sold for $286,800

Aside from his usual Pin-Ups, the artist was an extremely successful commercial illustrator. He created advertisements for Coca-Cola, Sealy Mattress, NAPA, and General Electric as well as story illustrations for magazines. Gil Elvgren had such success that his schedule was often booked a year out – few, if only Norman Rockwell, had similar success. Illustrators from this golden age of print media often collaborated on ideas on scenes and images. Notably, both Thorton Utz and George Hughes recalled two different ideas for Saturday Evening Posts covers that the Elvgren assisted with. Unlike other illustrators working within the Brown & Bigelow studio, Elvgren set up a studio in his home where famed models including Donna Reed, Arlene Dahl, and Kim Novak came to be photographed and painted by the artist. In 1956, however, the artist moved to Florida and met up with his fellow illustrators – Joyce Ballantyne, Arthur Sarnoff, Thorton Utz, and Al Buell. The move did little to change his career, Elvgren kept painting until his death in 1980.

Collecting clues for Gil Elvgren original pin up art

  • If your Elvgren, oil on canvas measures 28 x 22 inches and no signature– it’s most likely from the Louis F. Dow years.
  • If your Elvgren, oil on canvas measures 30 x 24 inches and the cursive signature– it’s most likely from the Brown & Bigelow years.
  • Do not be surprised to see Elvgren’s with repainted backgrounds or clothing – they were often re-worked. 
  • Don’t be afraid of issues in the background – as long as it’s not in the figure it doesn’t affect the value. 
  • Unframe your Elvgren studies – often illustrators and pinup artist have humorous dialogue with their printers in the margins “can we lower the towel here?” “how bout that curve?” 

Learn more about Gil Elvgren

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Posted by Meagen McMillan

Jr Specialist and Cataloger, Fine & Decorative Arts

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