Pin Up Art

This was research undertaken for the Advertising Photography Brief as this is the style of photograph specified in the client brief. See also a gallery of research images here.

In the late 19th century, burlesque performers and actresses sometimes used photographic advertisement as business cards to promote themselves. These adverts and business cards could often be found pinned up and scattered around the theatre – hence the name “pin up”. Understanding the power of photographic advertisements to promote their shows, burlesque women self-constructed their identity to make themselves visible. Being recognized not only within the theatre world itself but also to the general public challenged the prevailing conventions of women’s place and women’s potential in the public sphere.

As a result of being sexually fantasized, famous actresses in early 20th-century film were both drawn and photographed and put on posters to be sold for personal entertainment. Among the celebrities who were considered sex symbols, one of the most popular early pin-up girls was Betty Grable, whose poster was ubiquitous in the lockers of G.I.s during World War II.

The 1932 Esquire “men’s” magazine featured many drawings and “girlie” cartoons but was most famous for its “Vargas girls” these were paintings by one of  the masters of the genre Peruvian artist Alberto Vargas (see bio below), original Vargas Pin Up paintings now sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Prior to WWII there was less focus was on the sexuality of the images. However, during the war, the drawings transformed into women playing dress-up in military drag and drawn in seductive manners, like that of a child playing with a doll. The Vargas girls became so popular that from 1942–46, owing to the high volume of military demand, 9 million copies of the magazine-without adverts and free of charge was sent to American troops stationed overseas and in domestic bases as a morale booster for servicemen.  Pin Up art was often reproduced as nose art on US planes during world war II as good luck charms.
Other well-known artists specializing in the field were Earle K. Bergey, Enoch Bolles, Gil Elvgren, George Petty, Rolf Armstrong, Duane Bryers and Art Frahm. Notable contemporary pin-up artists include Paul John Ballard, Elias Chatzoudis, Armando Huerta,Cris Delara and Chuck Bauman.
Refreshingly Pin Up Art has never been an exclusively male dominated genre as might be expected. Already in the early 1930’s Zoe Mozert April 27, (1907 – February 1, 1993) was active. Zoë Mozert had the advantage of being both beautiful and talented enough to serve as a muse and artist. She modelled for both Earl Moran and Alberto Vargas, using her earnings to pay for her tuition while studying under Thornton Oakley. According to the American Art Archives, beginning in 1932, Mozert used pastel to create hundreds of covers for ads, movie magazines, posters, and pulps in New York City. When she used herself as a model, she would carefully light her studio, then use a photograph or a mirror to create the reference. And while she preferred the more wholesome girl-next-door look over the typical bombshell, her usage of bold pastel hues made her a favourite among Hollywood Studios.
Most notably, it’s Mozert who was behind the poster for notorious 1943 film The Outlaw, starring screen siren Jane Russell.  Another, contemporary female pin-up artist is Olivia De Berardinis who is most famous for her pin-up art of Bettie Page and her pieces in Playboy.


Recognized as the most famous living female pin-up artist, Olivia De Berardinis has been celebrated as the greatest since Alberto Vargas. De Berardinis (1948 – ) modestly describes herself as a “painter of women” in her biography. But she’s been creating pin up art for decades, from her early-’70s life as a New York City loft-dwelling waitress/artist to her current post as Playboy’s artist in residence. Olivia has captured some of pop culture’s notable (and at times controversial) muses, including burlesque performer Dita Von Teese, comedian Margaret Cho, and rocker Courtney Love. However, her most iconic cover girl is ‘50s pin-up icon Bettie Page, who Olivia transformed into a sensual teacher, French maid, and mermaid, among others. Olivia continues to publish books and calendars, all paying tribute to the legions of women inspiring her.



Alberto Vargas (9 February 1896 – 30 December 1982) is often considered the most famous of the pin-up artists due to his work for Esquire and the popularity of his images amongst serving soldiers in WWII. Born in Arequipa, Peru, Joaquin Alberto Vargas y Chávez moved to the United States in 1916 after studying art in Europe in Zurich and Geneva prior to World War I.

His early career included work as an artist for the Ziegfeld Follies and for many Hollywood studios. Vargas’ most famous piece of film work was that for the 1933 film The Sin of Nora Moran, which shows a near-naked Zita Johann in a pose of desperation. The poster is frequently named one of the greatest movie posters ever made.

In 2004, Hugh Hefner, the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Playboy, who had previously worked for Esquire, wrote that “The US Post Office attempted to put Esquire out of business in the 1940s by taking away its second-class mailing permit. The Federal authorities objected, most especially, to the cartoons and the pin-up art of Alberto Vargas. Esquire prevailed in the case that went to the Supreme Court, but the magazine dropped the cartoons just to be on the safe side”. A subsequent legal dispute with Esquire over the use of the name “Varga” resulted in a judgement against Vargas and he struggled financially until the 1960s when Playboy magazine began to use his work as “Vargas Girls.” His career flourished and he had major exhibitions of his work all over the world.

Gil Elvgren (March 15, 1914 – February 29, 1980), born Gillette Elvgren in Saint Paul, Minnesota, was another noted American painter of pin-up girls, advertising and illustration. Elvgren was one of the most important pin-up and glamour artists of the twentieth century. Today he is best known for his pin-up paintings for publishing company Brown & Bigelow who in the 1940’s were one the premier producers of calendars.
Elvgren was a classical American illustrator. He was a master of portraying the all-American ideal female but he wasn’t limited to the calendar pin-up industry. He was strongly influenced by the early “pretty girl” illustrators, such as Charles Dana Gibson, Andrew Loomis, and Howard Chandler Christy.In 1937, Gil began painting calendar pin-ups for Louis F. Dow, one of America’s leading publishing companies, during which time he created about 60 works on 28″ X 22″ canvas and distinguished them by a printed signature.Around 1944, Gil was approached by Brown and Bigelow and he was associated with Brown & Bigelow from 1945 to 1972. At Brown & Bigelow Elvgren began working with 30″ X 24″canvases, a format that he would use for the next 30 years, and he a;ways signed his work in a cursive script. Among the models Elvgren painted were Myrna Hansen, Donna Reed, Barbara Hale, Arlene Dahl, and Kim Novak.
Conclusions. The classic pin up style, whilst it undoubtedly has a sexual element, is not gratuitous and rarely depicts actual nudity but is usually more in the spirit of burlesque striptease, revealing tantalising glimpses of underwear and or flesh either as a result of an unlikely scenario or “accident” such as the “Fresh Lobster” image of Elvgren’s above or portraying a happy smiling girl in a more provocative pose than first seems to be the case. There being a degree of tension between the innocent, wholesome demeanour of the model versus the alluring pose.With the upsurge in interest and demand for all things retro / vintage Pin Up art contains to flourish as a genre today. 

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