Friday, 12 November 2010

The Delightfully Risqué Art of Alberto Vargas

Joaquin Alberto Vargas
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Reid Austin, former assistant art director at Playboy, in the pages of which the illustrations of Vargas appeared from the late 1950s till the mi-1970s, once explained the appeal of Vargas's artwork in this way: "Graphically, a lot had to do with the very basic visual presentation -- the figure against a starkly uncluttered background... a poster pure image. Most importantly, the rendering of flesh and the various textures used... the lynchpin is the aura of Glamour, of untouchable, unsoilable transcendent Glamour." (Cited from:, 2010)


He has been described as "the finest watercolorist of the female form" (Cited from:, 2010), but the creator of the quintessentially (and frolicking) American Girl of the 20th century was, ironically, not American-born; he was not even born in the 20th but in the 19th century. And given his erotically charged illustrations and watercolours of pin-up girls for which he eventually became famous for, he was born in the twilight years of that other, more prudish era: the Victorian. 

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Joaquin Alberto Vargas was an unassuming gentleman of Peruvian descent, born in Arequipa, in 1896, the son of photographer Max T. Vargas.  In 1911, Joaquin and a brother were sent off to Europe to study photography, with the expectation that Joaquin would, in time, take over the reins of his father's business. Significantly, while in Europe, the works of the master draughtsman and painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres had a profound impact on the young Vargas. It was also in Europe - Venice, to be precise - that Joaquin's earliest known work, a small watercolour of the Venetian skyline, was done shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, and he signed it "Albert Vargas, 1913." (Source:, 2010)

Vargas in his studio ~ 1950s

Ava Gardner
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Portrait of Marlene Dietrich

When war broke out in 1914, Vargas was instructed to return home to Arequipa, Peru. Instead, Vargas defied his father's orders and disembarked, in 1916, in New York City. The 20-year old Vargas was struck by the confidence and self-assurance of American women, the image of which left a marked impression on him. It was also in New York that he managed to find work with  the "Glorifier of the American Girl," the illustrious Broadway producer, Florenz "Flo" Ziegfeld. It was from Ziegfeld, he insightfully said at one time, that Vargas learned to differentiate between "nudes and lewds." Working for Ziegfeld had another fringe benefit for Vargas - he met there a "Ziegfeld girl" by the name of Anna Mae Cliff, who sat for several of his early illustrations and with whom he fell in love, wedded, and to whom he was a devoted husband. (Source:, 2010)
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Above left: First Love | Above right: Paloma
Vargas Legacy Girl
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After his tenure with Ziegfeld came to an end and Ziegfeld's shows closed, Vargas headed west, to Hollywood, where he worked as a freelance illustrator and set designer for several studios. In 1939, Vargas walked out in solidarity with union advocates at Warner Brothers, and was blacklisted by the studio for his actions. A year after that, in 1940, the publisher of Esquire Magazine, David Smart, hired Vargas as a replacement for George Petty, the creator of the Petty Girl. David Smart saw his opportunity to hire an unemployed and eager-to-work talented artist; it was at Esquire that Vargas began to develop - as did George Petty before him had - his own, signature Varga Girl.  The downside in all of this for Vargas, however - who was happy to be working again - is that he made the mistake of signing a contract that gave away the rights to his own work. (Source:, 2010)
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Both the Varga Girl and her predecessor, the Petty Girl, evolved from the earlier, more demure and iconic Gibson Girl. It was Esquire's David Smart, however, who made the decision to drop the "s" from Vargas - according to him, Varga was more mellifluous to the ear than Vargas - and dubbed the newly minted pin-up, The Varga Girl. Vargas's illustrations for the magazine's pages quickly became popular, including such offshoot products as the monthly Varga Calendar (now a highly sought collectible item). Both artists, Petty and Vargas, had been heavily influenced in their work by the illustrations, in Le Parisienne, of Raphael Kirchner; their airbrush technique helped to create the ideal images of flawless - albeit scantily-clad - women, whose erotically charged poses pushed the boundaries of what was considered appropriate taste at that time. (Source:, 2010)

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Dr. Maria Elena Buzek, associate professor of art history at the University of Colorado, believes that the success of Vargas's work lay in his ability to assimilate and integrate aspects of other artists' work into his own. According to Buzek, Vargas combined "Ingres' fantastical idealization of the feminine figure; Mucha's and Kirchner's deification of theatrical femmes fatale and the ideal of the smart and social new woman borrowed from Gibson... to create an image of a twentieth-century goddess" (Buzek, 2001, cited in, 2010). It was also perhaps a question of timing: with the arrival of World War II, the Varga pin-up girl was the perfect patriotic mascot (and in some illustrations, militarily symbolic) while simultaneously acting as a morale booster. Writer Jamie Malanowski has rightly noted that the Varga Girl "hung in billets and on bulkheads, was unfolded in foxholes, and was lovingly imitated on fuselages throughout Europe and the Pacific" (Cited from:, 2010) The sexy image of the all-American Varga Girl acted as an antidote to the lonely existence and bleak surroundings (and a reminder of home) experienced by home-sick men living in the trenches - more often than not, in foreign lands. (Source:, 2010)


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Surprisingly, although Vargas's illustrations were very popular among the male segment of society, they also seem to have been popular with the female members as well, who accounted for about one-third of the fan mail generated. There was another surprise in store: in 1943, the U.S. Postmaster General brought charges of obscenity against Esquire Magazine, expressly citing the Varga Girls illustrations. It seems that not everyone appreciated the allure of Vargas's work. But even at the trial, conflicting views arose. While one witness, a woman, asserted that the published pin-ups in the magazine exploited and demeaned women, another female witness argued that Vargas "beautifully portrayed" the female form. The case went as far as the Supreme Court. During the process, Esquire won the lawsuit and gained much (free) publicity for its publication. (Source:, 2010)



Just as George Petty before him had done, Vargas also filed a lawsuit against Esquire's David Smart over the latter's exploitative practices. As it turned out,Vargas lost his case on appeal in 1950 and was prohibited from ever using the Varga trademark signature again; as a result, he faced several years thereafter in financial hardship. Then in the in late 1950s, Playboy founder and publisher, Hugh Heffner, urged on by the magazine's artistic director, Reid Austin, hired Vargas on to revive the Varga Girl but under Vargas's own name. From that time onwards, the (new) Vargas Girl graced the pages of Playboy until the mid-1970s - by then Vargas's illustrations of sexily attired girls in suggestive, coyly becoming poses were out-of-date as centrefold photos of real women bearing all for the camera no longer left anything to the imagination. Another contributing factor was the fact that his wife, Anna Mae, passed away in 1974, leaving Vargas devastated and he stopped working altogether. The days of the pin-up girl were decidedly over. (Source:, 2010)

Yet according to the writer Hugh Merrill, Vargas's work had helped set the stage for this change. In the 1940s, the center of glamour had moved from New York City (the stage) to Hollywood (the movies). The "new cinematic standard of beauty of the 1950s," Merrill says, "did not come from nowhere. It was a real-life extension of the imaginary women in the Vargas paintings of the 1940s." (Cited from:, 2010)
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In spite of the fact that there have only ever been two major exhibitions of Vargas's work - one in Peru in 1958 and the other at the Spencer Museum at the University of Kansas in 2001 - his original works are eagerly sought by collectors (some of his original works of art have been known to fetch large sums [In 2003, Christie's reportedly auctioned  a 1967 work, Trick or Treat,  for $71,600]). Major collections of Vargas' work are held in the Playboy Archive and at the Spencer Museum, which, in 1980, received many of Vargas's work from his Esquire years. (Source:, 2010;, 2010)

Trick or Treat - 1967 
Reportedly sold for $71,600 at Christie's in 2003
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For the Spencer Museum exhibition in 2001, six critics contributed essays - not all of whom were of a favourable opinion nor viewed Vargas's work with undiluted delight. Among them, Andrea Dworkin, a radical feminist, who was appalled by what she termed as "proto-pornographic" images on display. Conversely, Dr. Buzek's analysis of the exhibition was of a different kind, in what is called Third Wave Feminism observation, which seizes the pin-up as an image of resistance rather than a capitulating one. Unlike Dworkin, Buzek saw it as an empowering image of women. (Source:, 2010)

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At the very end of December 1982, Joaquin Alberto Vargas died of a stroke at the age of 86. Since then, the enduring image (and legacy) of the Varga/Vargas Girl has continued to interest and fascinate new generations of pin-up girls appreciators and aficionados alike. Indelibly embedded into the collective conscience and popular imagination of  the 20th century, the charm, beauty, and ability of the Vargas Girl to delight has continued on into the 21st. It is no wonder that one admirer - among many - described his monthly pin-up calendar as "an icon of popular culture." (Source:, 2010)

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Suggested readings:

Vargas (1978), by Alberto Vargas &Austin Reid: Harmony Books

Varga - The Esquire Years: A Catalogue Raisonne (1989), by Alberto Vargas & Kurt Vonnegut: Alfred Van der Marck Editions

Alberto Vargas (1991), by Alberto Vargas & Astrid R. Conte: Taschen

Varga (1995), by Tom Robotham: Thunder Bay Press

Alberto Vargas: Works from the Max Vargas Collection (2006), by Reid Austin & Hugh Hefner: Bulfinch Press

Alberto Vargas (2009), by Alberto Ruy-Sanchez: Fondo Editorial de NL


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