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The American Pin-Up: Alberto Vargas and Beyond

Updated on March 20, 2018
Pin-up girl preparing for bed.
Pin-up girl preparing for bed. | Source

Pin-Up Girls -- Sassy, Sultry, Shapely, and Sweet

Full of tongue-in-cheek humor and double entendres, the pin-up art of the 1920s through 1960s may be becoming a lost art.

But who wouldn't fall in love with them at first sight? From the first curl of their hair to their glowing skin to the tip of their pointed toes, pin-ups and their (often unlikely) poses are part of American culture.

Let's see if we can keep it alive with Dita von Teese!

The Great American Pin-Up
The Great American Pin-Up
I own this book! It's a great resource for those interested in pin-ups.

Alberto Vargas and the Varga Girl

When you think of pin-ups, what is the first thing that comes to mind? For most of us, it's the Varga Girl, their long limbs and glamourous postures, those airbrushed beauties so alive on the page.

Vargas was practically born an artist -- as the son of an accomplished photographer, he learned to airbrush as a youngster and quickly rose through the ranks of magazine fashion illustrator to working in the art department at Paramount Pictures to Twentieth Century Fox, Warner Brothers,and then MGM. His calendar work is unparalleled and his movie posters of Hollywood stars like Jane Russell, Betty Grable, and Marilyn Monroe are forever etched in the minds of those who see them.

He also worked for Esquire Magazine, and created a gorgeous calendar... but never signed the work. Esquire published the calendar anyway, and later a court order was issued stating that Vargas would have to sign all future works with his full name.

Vargas immediately went into business for himself and the next thing you knew, he was invited to work for Playboy by Hugh Hefner himself. The rest is history, and although Vargas was much more than a pin-up artist, no one has been able to best him in popularity or reach yet.

Harry Ekman and Gil Elvgren

The lush, pouty illustrations of Harry Ekman and Gil Elvgren are often compared; in fact, Ekman was apprentice to Elvgren and assisted him in developing themes.

They were both known for photographing their models before painting them, and worked almost the same way... with one exception: Elvgren tended not to draw preliminary pencil sketches, while Ekman would work out an entire scene in pencil before beginning work on canvas.

If you'd like to check out some photographs that Elvgren worked from, Nerve posted some in April of 2014.

Pin-Up Barbie series: Way Out West Barbie. Zoë Mozert would be proud!
Pin-Up Barbie series: Way Out West Barbie. Zoë Mozert would be proud! | Source

Movie Magazines and Pulp Fiction

Pin-up artists were often called to draw for covers or specific storylines. Some of these publications included:

  • Dance
  • Fantastic Story Quarterly
  • Paris Nights
  • Pocket Books
  • Screen Book
  • Snappy
  • Strange Stories
  • Tatler
  • Tattle Tales
  • True Romance

Female Pin-Up Artists

But the joys of drawing the female form don't appeal to just men. Many talented female artists also captured curves on paper... and were just as successful.

Women like Joyce Ballantyne, Ruth Deckard, Pearl Frush, Mabel Rollins Harris, Zoe Mozert, and Laurette and Irene Patten proved they could paint as pretty a portrait as one of the guys.

For example:

  • The calendar by Joyce Ballantyne was reproduced time and time again.
  • Pearl Frush would often incorporate sports themes into her paintings.
  • Mabel Rollins Harris' softly glowing paintings executed in pastel won her many admirers.
  • Zoë Mozert was the top female calendar artist, with a huge number of illustrations, advertisements, movie posters, and consulting gigs to her credit.

Fun Facts about Pin-Up Artists and Their Models

  • Ballantyne and Mozert often posed as their own models.
  • Elvgren's described his ideal model as having a 15-year-old's face on a 20-year-old's body.
  • Rolf Armstrong would only work from an excellent live model, never from a photograph. This is why so much of his artwork was of the same woman!
  • Fritz Willis wrote four excellent art instruction books that remained in print for over 40 years.

Calendar Girls

Being chosen to illustrate a calendar was a real coup for pin-up artists. Brown and Bigelow was the largest publisher of pin-up calendars, and often calendars were so popular they were reprinted over and over.

Some artists who were chosen to draw for calendars were Ballantyne, Ekman, Elvgren, Frush, Harris, Mozert, and of course, the incomparable Vargas himself.

Other artists known for their calendar work are McClelland Barclay, Roy Best, Al Buell, Eddie Chan, Ernest Chiriaka, Edward D'Ancona, Art Frahm, Mike Ludlow, Earl Mac Pherson, Bill Medcalf, Al Moore, Earl Moran, George Petty, Bill Randall, T. N. Thompson, the wonderful Fritz Willis, and numerous other talented artists.

Thermometer readings suggest double entendres when coupled with pin-up subjects.
Thermometer readings suggest double entendres when coupled with pin-up subjects. | Source
Victory and political-type pin-ups continue to be popular.
Victory and political-type pin-ups continue to be popular. | Source

Popular Pin-Up Subjects

When the true subject is a shapely woman, who really needs to set a scene? Pin-up artists, that's who! Besides basic glamour shots, they drew all kinds of clever scenes in many locales. Their art appealed to all types of people... go ahead and name a style or scene! Odds are, it's been drawn.

Some popular pin-up subjects included:

  • Spilling condiments on clothing, especially at picnics. A hot dog is likely to be laying out on a plate, as well. (Wink wink, nudge nudge.)
  • Panties suddenly losing their elastic and sliding down at the most inopportune times: while holding two bags of groceries or filling the car with gas.
  • Breezes! Always a winner, numerous errant breezes have caught skirts aplenty in the pin-up world.
  • Playful pets nuzzling up to beauties or nipping at their skirts.
  • Western themes such as riding horses or rolling in hay.
  • Sports themes, like surfing, sailing, or skating.
  • Patriotic stars and stripes themes had a "victory" ring to them and were beloved by soldiers and civilians alike.

This Western style pin-up is ready for wrangling.
This Western style pin-up is ready for wrangling. | Source


So what if you're known for drawing glamour girls? These pin-up artists had skills to pay the bills, and they capitalized on it by illustrating much more than just pretty faces, with flawless techniques and true style.

  • Joyce Ballantyne did advertising for Coppertone tanning lotion (remember that little girl whose dog was nipping at her swimsuit?), Coca-Cola, Dow Chemical, and Schlitz Beer.
  • Gil Elvgren drew for Royal Crown Soda, Coca-Cola, Ovaltine, General Tire, General Electric, Serta Perfect Sleep, and more. He also illustrated stories in magazines such as Cosmopolitan, Redbook, McCall's, and Women's Home Companion.
  • Mabel Rollins Harris freelanced for the Rustcraft and Norcross Greeting Card Companies and drew covers for The Saturday Evening Post.
  • Zoë Mozert illustrated magazine covers for American Weekly and movie posters for The Outlaw and Calendar Girl.
  • Alberto Vargas drew for Butterick Patterns and the Adelson Hat Company before he made his fortune in pin-ups. He also painted the stars of the Ziegfeld Follies and did hairstyle illustrations for Harper's Bazaar.
  • Fritz Willis was deluged with commissions for Max Factor, Sunkist, Pepsi Cola, and the Stardust Hotel and Casino Lounge in Las Vegas.

Pin-Up Poll

Who's your favorite pin-up artist?

See results


  • Martignette, Charles G. and Meisel, Louis K. The Great American Pin-Up. Taschen, 2006.


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    • profile image

      louis k meisel 

      18 months ago

      Glad you are an enthusiast!

    • theclevercat profile imageAUTHOR

      Rachel Vega 

      7 years ago from Massachusetts

      Thanks, EsmeSanBona! This kind of "art" is a little kitschy, a little sexy, a little funny... and all good. :^) Thanks so much for commenting, and I;m glad you enjoyed it!

    • EsmeSanBona profile image

      Aisling Ireland 

      7 years ago from Bolingbroke, GA

      I loved this article. I'm not really that into pin-up art, but that's just because I think of it as limited to Playboy. This art is so cute and cool, I fell in love with it. Oh that this is what pin-up meant today.

    • theclevercat profile imageAUTHOR

      Rachel Vega 

      7 years ago from Massachusetts

      Thanks, Ken! I think pin-ups are great, too. :-)

    • Kenja profile image

      Ken Taub 

      7 years ago from Long Island, NY

      Fairly brilliant. What meaty (curvy, fetching) subject matter. Good stuff! best, Ken

    • theclevercat profile imageAUTHOR

      Rachel Vega 

      8 years ago from Massachusetts

      Hey, Doc! My personal favorite is Peter Driben. His pin-ups make me laugh every time -- maybe not the effect he was going for, but what can I say? Favorite female pin-up artist is Joyce B. I'll have to check out the hub on McGinnis and your boards!

    • Docmo profile image

      Mohan Kumar 

      8 years ago from UK

      I absolutely love pin up art ( as you could see from my Pinterest boards!) I am a big fan of vargas and also of the paperback cover artists of the era. My absolute favourite is Robert Mcginnis ( I've a hub on him) Great detail here, Rachel. Well compiled!

    • theclevercat profile imageAUTHOR

      Rachel Vega 

      8 years ago from Massachusetts

      Hi, KrystalD! I'm so glad you enjoyed the hub, and thanks so much for the vote!

    • theclevercat profile imageAUTHOR

      Rachel Vega 

      8 years ago from Massachusetts

      Ahhhh, Art Frahm of "panties falling down" infamy! What a silly series, and I love it too! Ever notice that he always seemed to draw the same undies? Pale pink with white lace trim. Perhaps there was only one style of panties available at the time? Haha.

      Thank you so much for stopping by. Great to see you! :-)

    • KrystalD profile image


      8 years ago from Los Angeles

      I love that pin up art is still so appreciated. This hub is very interesting and informative. Voting up!

    • Doc Sonic profile image

      Glen Nunes 

      8 years ago from Cape Cod, Massachusetts

      I was just about to go off to bed when I saw this, and I just had to comment. I love pin-up art! I think Art Frahm, with his improbable and ill-timed wardrobe malfunctions, may be my favorite. I'm not sure how politically correct it is, but I also don't care! It's just toungue-in-cheek fun. And many of these artists were actually quite skilled. I like how you got your Barbie in there, too! Voted up!


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