Gil Elvgren (1914-1980) was a prolific painter and illustrator of what most people would call “Pin-Ups”.
In the art illustration genre of vintage pin-ups,
Elvgren’s work is by far the most popular among collectors and enthusiasts, today.
One reason might be that he had a keen eye for feminine beauty,
….. and had the talent of expressing both that beauty and a certain flirtatious, but still innocent, sexuality via his canvases.
A graduate of the American Academy of Art, Elvgren had been drawing since he was eight, and originally had pursued a degree in architecture, but caught the ‘bug’ for illustration while at the University of Minnesota.
Well known artist Bill Mosby was Elvgren’s instructor at art school, and he described his former student thus:
” He is a fine painter; as a draftsman there are few who can equal him. He has amazing hands. They don’t look like the hands of an artist. He’s built like a football player and a pencil is almost buried in that paw of his, but the touch he has and the subtle variations he is capable of can only be compared to the sensitive skill of a great surgeon. “
He was influenced by, and drew inspiration from, several important illustrators and artists of the early twentieth century: Haddon Sundblom, Harrison Fisher, Charles Dana Gibson, Howard Chandler Christy, J.C. Leyendecker, and Howard Pyle.
Interestingly enough, Elvgren shared many of these same influences with his friend Norman Rockwell, as well as their realistic style of drawing- and they even worked together at Brown and Bigelow in the 1940’s.
In the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s, Elvgren’s pin-up work could be seen in magazines, books, calendars,
……………… and, of course, on the lockers of U.S. servicemen worldwide.
Advertisers loved the risqué-but-still-wholesome look of his work, and his pinups were widely used in merchandise like matchbooks, pens, playing cards, and other ephemera —
But Elvgren didn’t just draw pin ups….
He also illustrated stories for general interest magazines like “Good Housekeeping”, “Cosmopolitan”, “McCalls”, “Womans Home Companion” and the “Saturday Evening Post”.
And he did commissions for some of the largest corporate sponsors of advertising art, like Coca-Cola, General Electric, Sealy, Sylvania, Schlitz, Four Roses Whiskey, and Orange Crush.
He was also very well thought of as a professional photographer, and art teacher-
He was a pioneer in 35mm stereo color photography- having been introduced to it, around 1950, by motion picture great Harold Lloyd.
Many of the most famous women in Hollywood couldn’t resist making the long trip down to his studio in Siesta Key, Florida, to be immortalized by Elvgren’s brush —
……….. including Myrna Loy, Donna Reed, Kim Novak, and Barbara Hale.
Still, of the all the gorgeous work he did, his pin-ups remain the most well known today.
Much of the appeal is how he expresses humor, and the connection between it and the sweet sexiness of his subject.
He also liked to include animals in his work..
….. they gave his models a chance to relax, and that quality really comes across.
His favorite medium was oil on canvas, which helps gives his work a depth and richness of color that is a unique part of the Elvgren Magic— so smooth that it came to be called “Mayonnaise Painting“.
Asked what feature of a model was the most interesting to him, he replied:
” A gal with highly mobile facial features capable of a wide range of expressions is the real jewel. The face is the personality. ”
His brilliant and prolific career ended with his death in 1980, but his legacy lives on, not only in his own work, but in the work of those he directly influenced —-
Artists like Al Buell, Joyce Ballantyne, Harry Ekman, and Mayo Olmstead.
An interesting note…..
since Elvgren used real models for his work,
and for those who wonder how much reality was expressed…..
here’s the actual pose shot for the above piece …..
….. that’s one lucky bear.
For more information on the life and art of Gil Elvgren, read:
The Art & Life of Gil Elvgren – by Charles G. Martignette
If you like Pin Ups,
check out my other posts on these famous Pin Up Artists :