9 Masters of Vintage Pin Up Art

July 28, 2018

The pin-up art as a genre has its specific roots and has to be perceived in a broader context. Aside from the strict treatment of sexuality through the art history, the pin-up developed fully during the 20th-century modernism. This phenomenon grew simultaneously with the changing social circumstances and a general need for more freedom regardless of the prescribed canons of morality.

The provocative aesthetic was an effect of advertising and the consumerist culture in general. Since it was produced for the male gaze exclusively, pin-up is often overlooked and considered patriarchal and degrading for women. Nevertheless, looking from the contemporary perspective, the production was large, with artists of both gender, fulfilled with different painterly approaches, so it is necessary to analyze it properly.

Pin Up Art Through History

The emergence of naughty ladies images is inseparable from the history of illustration. However, in order to understand this connection and the pin-up, it is mandatory to briefly look through the history.

Namely, since prehistory, the female representation was celebrated in a form of Mother Earth, which then continued in Ancient Greece with the celebration of the nude body of both sexes. In Pompeii and the Roman world, erotic art was blossoming and was inscribed in each aspect of everyday life, which has changed rapidly with the rise of Christianity. The middle ages were suffocated with religious art, so any form of eroticism was practically banned from the public sphere. The printing process was hard to handle so the illustration wasn’t developing so fast either.

Entwined with the economy, technology improved the means of distribution and the invention of Lithography in the 18th century and later of photography in the 19th enabled erotic images to be reproduced faster. Naturally, the Golden Age of Illustration began.

The Specificity of the Pinup Genre

Pin Up art is entirely focused on the representation of women in sensual or erotic poses. The term was first used in the Anglo-Saxon culture around 1941, although the genre can be traced back to the end of the 19th century. It is also important to draw a parallel with the burlesque and vaudeville, which embraced erotica as the fundamental element of their para-theatrical practices.

The exciting images of female beauty were found in magazines or newspapers and were pinned up, so the genre was formed later and pictures of pin-up girls were massively produced for magazines, as well in a form of postcards and chromo-lithographs. Interestingly, the photographs of celebrities who were the sex symbols of their times were also considered as pin-ups. The best example is Betty Grable, whose images were immensely popular during World War II.

The Most Prominent Pin-Up Artists

The pin-up genre was blossoming in post-war America, and even became a specific subculture with legendary models such as Betty Page. Although this popular phenomenon was considered indecent and vulgar, it has heavily affected the medium of illustration and reflected on later development of Pop Art.

In the European context of the mid-1910s, Fernande Barrey aka Miss Fernande was the world's first pin-up girl in the modern sense. Her nudes were cherished by soldiers on both sides during World War I. On the other hand, Charles Dana Gibson and Alberto Vargas were representatives of the first generation of pin artists.

About their opuses, as well as of seven other significant pin-up artists, you can read further in the text.

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In the 15 years since TASCHEN released The Great American Pin-up, international interest in this distinctly American art form has increased exponentially. Paintings by leading artists such as Alberto Vargas and George Petty that sold for $ 2,000 in 1996 are going for $ 200,000 and more today. Pin-up: drawings, paintings and pastels of an idealized female face and figure intended for public display, was produced between 1920 and 1970, for use on calendars, and magazine covers and centerfolds. The majority of original paintings were discarded by publishers and calendar companies after printing, making the surviving art that much more precious. Today it’s popularity is huge, and ripe for an equally huge and truly comprehensive collector’s edition.

Featured image: Alberto Vargas, 1920. Image via Wikimedia Commons

George Petty

George Brown Petty was born in 1894 in Abbeville, in southern Louisiana. During high school days, he was engaged within his father's photo shop where he learned how to use an airbrush. Petty studied art at the Académie Julian until 1916 when he returned to Chicago and worked as an airbrush retoucher. Gradually, Petty started working as a freelance artist, painting calendar girls and magazine covers for The Household, and in 1926 opened his own studio.

Petty’s pinup art pieces were featured in Fawcett Publications's True and Esquire. His reproductions were known as Petty Girls (which he released from 1933 until 1956) were widely adorned by artists decorating military planes during World War II. The artist passed away in 1975 and is considered as one of the pioneers of modern pin-up art.

Featured image: George Petty - The Ballerina, 1965. Private collection of Kevin Prochaska. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Art Frahm

Art Frahm was born in 1907 in Chicago and is known as an American painter of pin-up girls and advertising. He came to prominence in the 1940s and for twenty years was rather active and commercially successful. Throughout that time, Frahm managed to construct specific style which was quite reminiscent of Norman Rockwell, while he produced advertising works for clients like Coppertone and Coca-Cola.

His entire oeuvre is filled with pin up girls and is focused on the representation of ladies in distress. These women with fallen panties were both sexy and campy because of their poses and dolly face expressions. Frahm was apparently humorous, so perspective and unrealistic depiction of figures are justified. The vintage art of this kinky joker became embraced by the fetish subculture.

Featured image: A pin-up by Art Frahm. Image by Pin Up Ark via flickr

Enoch Bolles

Enoch Bolles was born in 1883 in Boardman, Florida. He studied at the National Academy of Design and his first works were published on the covers of joke books, such as Judge and Puck. The best known are the illustrations Bolles released for a magazine Film Fun from 1923 until 1943, and none of this work was signed and it remains unattributed.

Sadly, due to psychological problems, the artist ended his career, and he spent most of his life in a hospital where occasionally painted commissioned portraits for personal pleasure and died from heart failure at the age of 93.

Bolles was among the earliest glamour illustrators and released advertising color illustrations for products ranging from bread to cigarettes. His best-known pinup art illustration is the Windy Girl for Zippo lighters.

Featured image: A Pin-up by Enoch Bolles, by Susi Pator via flickr

Zoe Mozert

Zoe Mozert was born in 1907 and was an established American illustrator and perhaps one of the early and most famous pin-up artists and models. She studied Philadelphia School of Industrial Art and modeled to raise money to pay for her studies. Throughout her career, Mozert painted a number of magazine covers and Hollywood movie posters. The artist was often her own model, using cameras or mirrors to capture the pose.

Mozert is known for her authentic style based on realistic pin up girl representations and pastel coloring, and for her pin-up series for the company Victory Girls published in calendar and postcard form during the WW II.

Gil Elvgren

Gillette Elvgren was born in 1914 in St. Paul, Minnesota. He studied the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and in one point transferred to the American Academy of Arts in Chicago. Shortly after the end of studies, the artist started working in the fanciest advertising agency in the city and became quite successful. In between 1945 to 1972, he released a number of advertisements while working for Brown & Bigelow company, and simultaneously worked with other clients such as Coca-Cola to General Electric.

A notable influence of early pin up art illustrators like Charles Dana Gibson or Andrew Loomis is present in Elvgren’s work. It is important to mention that in 1951 the artist started working in his home studio by using an assistant to set up lighting, building props and scenes, etc. A number of his famous pin up girls were painted as nose art on military aircraft during WW II.

Featured image: Gil Elvgren - The Verdict Was, Wow!, 1947, via Wikimedia Commons

Alberto Vargas

Alberto Vargas was born in 1896 Arequipa, Peru and is perceived as one of the most iconic pin-up artists. He studied in Europe, and in 1916 moved to New York where he started working for famous the Ziegfeld Follies and various Hollywood studios. During the 1940s Vargas created a notable number of pin-ups for Esquire magazine known as Varga Girls. His works were also used as decoration for military aircraft during WW II.

Vargas perfected his style based on a combination of watercolor and airbrush. The figures inhabiting his works were portrayed in a distinct and sexy manner with a special focus on elongated fingers and toes with nails often painted red. Iconic is his poster for the film The Sin of Nora Moran from 1933, which is considered one of the greatest movie posters ever made.

Featured image: Alberto Vargas, 1920. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Earl Moran

Earl Steffa Moran was born in 1893 in Belle Plaine, Iowa. He studied at the Art Students League in Manhattan where he had a chance to study under a number of great artists. In 1931, Moran opened his own studio focusing on illustration and photography and after sending pin-up images to Thomas D. Murphy Company and Brown and Bigelow, his career rapidly started growing.

During the 1940s Moran's work was promoted by media which gained him fame and he was involved with several pin-up based magazines. Couple of Hollywood actresses posed for him, yet at one point he started collaborating with Marilyn Monroe and the two became friends.

By 1950s Moran became a pin-up celebrity, threw posh parties, appeared in short TV films, etc. Later, the artist focused more on painting fine-art subjects, with nudes as his favorite theme. Moran died in 1984.

Featured image: A Pin-up by Earl Moran, by Susi Pator via flickr

Olivia De Berardinis

Olivia De Berardinis was born in 1948 in Long Beach, California. Known simply as Olivia, this artist is celebrated for her paintings of women. She studied at the New York School of Visual Arts from 1967 to 1970 and started pursuing a career as a Minimalist artist.

In 1975, due to lack of finances, she started producing commercial art for periodicals and paperback publishers, advertisements, and movie posters. Olivia mostly did erotically charged images for man’s magazines which led her to become a regular contributor for Playboy in the mid-1980s.

Her works have been shown in art galleries throughout the States and Japan, and some of them belong to private collectors worldwide.

Joyce Ballantyne

Joyce Ballantyne was born in 1918 in Norfolk, Nebraska. She started her studies at the University of Nebraska and then transferred to the Art Institute of Chicago to study commercial art and the American Academy of Art. For some time Ballantyne illustrated books for Cameo Press and then went to work for Stevens-Gross Studio, where she stayed for more than a decade.

In 1945, she was recommended by Gil Elvgren to produce some pin-ups for Brown & Bigelow. She often used herself as a model. In 1959 she released one of the most iconic characters for Coppertone suntan lotion. The image of a beauty girl with her bathing suit being tugged down by a small dog became the most celebrated vintage ad.

Featured image: A Pin-up by Joyce Ballantyne, by Susi Pator via flickr