The Pin Up Art of Rolf Armstrong


Of all the famous pin up artists of the 1920’s, 1930’s, and 1940’s,

Rolf Armstrong has few equals,

and remains a favorite with today’s audiences for several very good reasons –

—including his mastery of symbolic color,
the fine detail of his work,
the bright flashes of fashion and style,
and a distinct masculine perspective,
which he expresses on all of his canvasses–
and which tends the amplify the femininity of his beautiful models.

Born in Bay City, Michigan on Easter, 1889,
rolf-armstrong_portrait3-417Rolf was the son of a shipping magnate whose declining fortunes eventually forced him and his family to move to Detroit.

After the death of his father in 1903,
Rolf and his mother found themselves in Seattle,

and at 15, dropped out of school
and took a job as a Steamship Agent.

Rolf’s two passions,
sports  (he was an avid boxer and a skilled sailor)
and art, began to mesh as he developed his painting skills drawing for local publications,

and his mother encouraged him to get some formal instruction.

At 19, he took the train to Chicago and enrolled in the Art Institute —

rolfThere, he put himself through school working various jobs,

including that of a boxing instructor,

and an art teacher.

He then travelled to Paris,
and spent some time refining his art at the Académie Julian.

Upon his return to the United States,

Rolf was able to pick up a few commissions locally before packing up and moving to New York,

rolfawhere his brother Paul (a playwright) helped him set up a studio in Manhattan.

There, in 1912, he got his first major commission,
for the cover of ‘Judge’ magazine.

Judge was a very popular magazine at the time –
and this was a major coup for Rolf.

His cover for Judge,
and those for the Chicago Examiner,
led to more magazine commissions,

as well as portraits–


This one,
from 1913,

would have been certain to have pleased his brown-eyed model,

and was recently offered for sale at $13,500.

his style was still developing,
but there are hints to the heights of which his art would eventually reach.

He was achieving some critical success for his fresh and appealing style…..


…. and although,
he was getting very popular for his glamor art,

Rolf was also very adept at expressing the masculine perspective,

as demonstrated in his famous 1916 US Navy recruiting poster.

Armstrong’s ‘big break’ came in 1919,

…. when the large commercial art publishing company Brown and Bigelow hired Rolf to paint some calendar art—

This was the turning point.

His first work for them,

” Dream Girl”,

is a breathtaking exercise in color and beauty,
and still is considered one of his best works.

The perspective, shading, and color are top notch.

Look at how Armstrong expresses the personality in the eyes.

After this piece,
his career took off —

He found himself doing portraits of famous celebrities of the time, like:
Theda Bara,
LillianGishDecember_1921Lillian Gish,
Greta Garbo,
Constance Bennett,
Marion Davies,
Constance Talmadge,
and Pola Negri,

—– for movie magazines such as “Photoplay”,
“Pictorial Review”,
“New Movie”.

He made several very influential friends,
who were also fans of his work,
including James Cagney, with whom he shared an interest in boats, and Boris Karloff.

jewel flowers

Between his paintings for calendars, magazines, portraits, and song sheets —

…. Rolf pursued his passion for sailing in the waters off Long Island, and was rarely seen without his captain’s hat.

His Manhattan studio was a buzz of activity from 1920 on through to his retirement in the 1950’s.

He was a popular, talented and prolific artist, and an enthusiastic, and loyal friend…

His most favorite model, armstrong
Miss Jewel Flowers of North Carolina,
was featured in over 50 of his art works….

Her natural beauty and joie de vive was ideally suited for the kind of work Armstrong loved to paint,

…..and somehow,
he managed to make each image of Miss Flowers as distinct and fresh as the first.

Rolf Armstrong is said to have been a strong influence on artists ranging from Zoe Mozert to Earl Moran…

Most fans of pin-ups can identify a Rolf Armstrong artwork without too much trouble,

rolfsignbecause of his noted artistry with colors,
( especially in backgrounds)

— his lines, shadings and forms,

—but also,
his distinctive signature appears on almost of all of his published work,

which only adds to the collectability and popularity of it.

Rolf retired in 1957,
and died three years later in Hawaii…

Still, the beautiful art-works Armstrong created number in the hundreds….

And he is remembered as one of the finest artists in the pin up and glamor genre.



The Pin Up Art of Gil Elvgren

0Gil 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 :

Enoch Bolles
Henry Clive

Wilson Hammell
George Petty
Gil Elvgren
Zoe Mozert
Earl Moran