THE ART AND LIFE OF GIL ELVGREN
Gil Elvgren (1914-1980) was the most important pin-up and glamour artist of the twentieth century. During his professional career, which began in the mid 1930s and lasted more than forty years, he established himself as the clear favorite of pin-up collectors and fans worldwide. Although most of his work was created for commercial use, it has been increasingly recognized as "real" art by many private collectors, dealers, galleries and museums. And indeed, though Elvgren has been considered as mainly a pin-up artist this last half-century, in reality he deserves recognition as a classical American illustrator whose career encompassed many different fields of commercial art. He was always a master in portraying feminine beauty, but his output was by no means confined to the calendar pinup industry.
Thus, part of Elvgren's fame is undoubtedly due to his now legendary series of pin-ups painted over a period of thirty years for Brown and Bigelow, calendar publishers of St. Paul, Minnesota.
However, his twenty-five-year stint on advertising work for Coca-Cola helped to establish him as one of the great illustrators in this field as well. While the Coca-Cola artwork included some typical "Elvgren Girl" pinups, most of it depicted typical American families, children and teenagers ordinary people doing everyday things. During World War II and the Korean War, Elvgren even painted military scenes for Coca Cola. Like his famous Brown and Bigelow pinups, the Coca-Cola images eventually became acknowledged icons of American life.
Elvgren's Coca-Cola subjects portrayed the American dream of a secure, comfortable lifestyle, but his well-known illustrations for magazine stories often captured timeless scenes that reflected the hopes, fears and joys of their readers. These publishing assignments were commissioned during the 1940s and 1950s by a host of mainstream American magazines, including McCall's, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping and Woman's Home Companion.
In the field of advertising, alongside his Coca-Cola work, he contributed to campaigns for well-known American companies and products such as Orange Crush, Schlitz Beer, Sealy Mattress, General Electric, Sylvania, and Napa Auto Parts. What with his work for Brown and Bigelow, the Coca-Cola and other national advertising output and his magazine work, Elvgren was much in demand as an artist.
Elvgren stood out not just for his painting and advertising graphics. He was also a notable professional photographer, wielding the camera with the same dexterity as he wielded his brush. And his amazing energy and talent did not stop there, since he was a respected, even revered, teacher of students who often went on to become famous artists in their own right thanks, in no small measure, to Elvgren's personal instruction and encouragement.
Long before he attended his first art class in 1933, Elvgren had been impressed by the early "pretty girl" illustrators, among whom were names such as Charles Dana Gibson, Howard Chandler Christy, Harrison Fisher and James Montgomery Flagg. Their "glamour and romance" successors McClelland Barclay, Haddon H. Sundblom, Andrew Loomis, Charles E. Chambers and Pruett CarterChad also left their mark on the young artist. Elvgren had begun early on to tear out of countless magazines individual pages or cover pages of artists he admired or who interested him, and this now became a ritual with him. As the tear sheets ritually piled up week after week, month after month, they eventually formed a very comprehensive collection that.would later influence not only his painting techniques but also his approach to particular commissions.
To fully appreciate the significance of Gil Elvgren's art and accomplishments, it seems appropriate to start by reviewing briefly the two groups of artists whose influence is evident at the outset of his career. Subsequently, other artists who inspired him during his career will be introduced as we progress chronologically through his life and art. Mention will also be made of the artists who ceaselessly tried to imitate his style. Some of these were former students, others were friends, while many more never met him but knew his work from collecting their own tear sheets, just as he had done. By thus explaining the context in which Elvgren's work was created, we shall arrive at an informative, fully rounded and, we hope, entertaining picture of Gil Elvgren as a man and artist.
THE EARLY YEARS OF AMERICAN ILLUSTRATION
For many art historians, Felix Octavius Carr Darley (1822-1888) was the first American illustrator of note. He had a prolific career, working both for book publishers (illustrating works by leading writers of the day such as Poe, Hawthorne, and Longfellow) and on magazines, as a regular contributor to Harper's Weekly. More significantly, Darley was the first American illustrator to successfully challenge the dominance of English and European schools of illustration over American commercial art.
In 1853, the year that Darley became a member of the National Academy, Howard Pyle was born in Wilmington, Delaware. Twenty-five years later, Pyle emerged as the true father of American illustration. Not only was he an enormously productive artist, he wrote many famous books and stories as well. He was moreover the founder of the Brandywine School, whose influence on American illustration art would endure for about a century. Almost all twentieth-century illustrators who worked in a painterly style rather than the style of advertising graphics style (thus also Elvgren) were directly influenced by the teachings of Pyle (1853-1911) and his best students, Harvey T. Dunn (1884-1952) and Frank Schoonover (1877-1972).
Elvgren shared his admiration for the Brandywine School's philosophy of painting with Norman Rockwell (1877-1978). The two men first became acquainted in 1947, when they both attended a Brown and Bigelow Managers' Convention in St. Paul , and a friendship developed. Elvgren and Rockwell were two of a kind: both had the knack of portraying real people in totally believable situations. The difference was that Rockwell had the choice of an almost unlimited array of subjects for his paintings, whereas Elvgren seemingly had less freedom in his pin-up assignments. Yet soon Rockwell likewise took the opportunity to tell Elvgren what the latter had already often heard from other artists that he admired his work and envied him for his job of painting the world's most beautiful women. Their meeting marked the beginning of a long association, which led eventually to their even sharing artistic secrets at their annual encounters.
The development of glamour illustration in the twentieth century was the consequence of an earlier general growth in commercial art as printing techniques continued to evolve and improve. In the late nineteenth century, the output of commercial art had expanded rapidly to keep pace with the voracious demand for illustrations in the new weekly and monthly periodicals and magazines. One of the first lessons that publishers learned was that magazines would sell better with illustrations, both on the covers and inside, with the articles. The technical advances coincided with a population boom in the United States, which fueled still more the demand for periodicals and newspapers and thus for quality artwork as well.
Within ten years of Pyle publishing his first illustrations, the American public was treated to the first real pin-up. This idealized All-American creation, blending the "girl-next-door" with the "girl-of-your-dreams," was born of the brush of Charles Dana Gibson (1867-1944) in Boston around 1887. Quickly becoming the sweetheart of America, the Gibson Girl was depicted primarily in pen-and-ink drawings. Her picture appeared in all the early periodicals, including Scribner's, Century and Harper's Weekly. Her success was so overwhelming that Gibson Girl drawings were soon seen on the front covers of such popular magazines as Life and Collier's and in expanded formats as two-page centerfolds. The single female of the early drawings developed into a group of females, then a man and a woman or mixed groups. The male figures became known as Gibson Men and were enthusiastically taken up by the admirers of the Gibson Girl.
By 1900 the Gibson Girl (and the Gibson Man) had attained unprecedented international popularity. The image of the Gibson Girl was seen almost everywhere throughout the United States and Europe. Gibson's drawings were published and reproduced as prints, lithos, calendars, centerfolds and magazine covers as well as on numerous advertising specialty products such as playing cards, notepads, ink blotters and ladies' fans. Even wallpaper, fine china, jewelry boxes and umbrellas carried the pictures. Between 1898 and 1900, Harper's and Scribner's between them published five hard-cover artbooks containing collections of Gibson's drawings. The last of these, entitled A Widow and Her Friends, bore a drawing on its front cover that the artist called the epitome of the Gibson Girl .
The Gibson Girl enchanted more than one generation of Americans. Though she had her beginning in the early Art Nouveau period, she was still going strong in the Roaring Twenties as a flapper girl jitterbugging and dancing the Charleston in speakeasies. Gibson updated the style and manner of his drawings, and the fashions in them, to win over a new audience .
Next on the scene was the celebrated Christy Girl. Created by Howard Chandler Christy (1873-1952), she soon enjoyed a widespread popularity that came close to equaling that of the Gibson Girl. The Christy Man logically followed, since the artist painted so many romantic boy-girl scenes.
Christy began his career with front cover assignments for the leading magazines , then followed with book illustrations . Even famous novels such as James Fenimore Cooper's Last of the Mohicans were illustrated with scenes featuring the Christy Girl. From 1921 until his death, Christy lived in and maintained a studio at the Hotel des Artistes in New York. On the walls of the hotel restaurant, he painted a landmark series of sensual nudes that still draw people from all over the world. In 1921, at the peak of his career, he retired from commercial illustration to concentrate on portrait painting. His most famous commission, a portrait of the airwoman Amelia Earhart, was completed in 1932 as an oil on canvas and later published by Town & Country as the front cover of their February 1, 1933 issue. It was the only exception to Christy's decision in 1921 not to make commercial use of his work. Exhibited in Christy's show entitled "Portraits of Celebrities" at the Baltimore Museum of Art in January 1936, the painting hung between portraits of Will Rogers and William Randolph Hearst. Shortly afterwards, it disappeared and has resurfaced only recently; this lost treasure is thus reproduced here for the first time in more than sixty years..
In 1921, at the peak of his career, Christy retired from commercial illustration to concentrate on portrait painting.
Christy henceforth lived and worked at the Hotel des Artistes in New York for the rest of his life. On the walls of the hotel restaurant, he painted a landmark series of sensual nudes that still draw people from all over the world.
Another member of the select group of glamour illustrators whose products bear their name was Harrison Fisher (1875-1934). His Fisher Girl, rivaling the creations of Gibson and Christy, first appeared in Puck about 1898. During the 1910s and 1920s, Fisher had the prestigious assignment of painting all the front covers for Cosmopolitan . Eventually, like Christy, he decided to restrict himself to portraits. In fact, it became a pattern among future generations of illustrators: having achieved the highest level of success in the commercial field, advertising artists longed for acceptance in the field of "fine" art. Portrait work seemed the best route to the recognition they sought from museums, critics and the fine-art community. Unfortunately, by the time their commercial careers had ended, many of them were no longer at the peak of their artistic or physical capabilities.
Gil Elvgren studied the work of these early classic glamour artists closely, as the Gibson-Christy-Fisher clan had created the basis from which all later glamour (and pin-up) art developed. Another early artist whom Elvgren emulated was John Henry Hintermeister (1870-1945). Although much of his art focused on Americana themes, he did do a number of sensual pin-up and glamour paintings for calendar publication .
The last of the great early American illustrators who influenced both Gil Elvgren and Norman Rockwell was J. C. (Joseph Christian) Leyendecker (1874-1951). Rockwell worshiped Leyendecker and in his autobiography called him his greatest idol, mentor and source of inspiration. Rockwell would often go to downtown New Rochelle in the early evening just to watch Leyendecker get off the train on his return from his Manhattan studio. Years later, when Rockwell's career had evolved into a success story similar to Leyendecker's, the two became friends. Elvgren also admired Leyendecker, his admiration dating from the time he began to attend classes at the Chicago Academy of Art. From there, he would occasionally visit the Art Institute in order to see Leyendecker's early student drawings, which were in its permanent collection.
Leyendecker's career began to flourish about 1895 with a commission to create a front cover for a fashion catalogue. His painting for this commission, Art in Dress Fall & Winter , is a superb rare example of the incorporation of Art Nouveau design into a depiction of a young, beautiful, and highly fashionable couple. By 1899 Leyendecker had notched up his first Saturday Evening Post cover, which was the beginning of an almost lifelong relationship between the artist and the Curtis Publishing Company. Of over 300 Post covers he did, the greatest were painted during the mid to late 1930s, being notable for their whimsical and capricious character.
Leyendecker's most famous image, the Arrow Collar Shirt Man, was created as advertising for shirts by menswear outfitters Cluett Peabody during the 1920s and 1930s. So popular was the handsome model who appeared in these advertisements that every week hundreds of letters proposing marriage were received from women by the artist and the company's advertising agency. Although most of Leyendecker's advertising commissions were for men's fashions, he always enjoyed including a beautiful girl in his work. His legendary ad series for Hart, Schaffner and Marx matched the Arrow Collar work, both in popularity with the public and success in sales.
What Elvgren and Rockwell so admired in Leyendecker's work were two primary skills virtually unmatched by any other artist or illustrator of the period. First, he had his own unique way of incorporating the bare canvas into a painting so that it served both as a color in itself and as an element of the final composition. Many other illustrators attempted, without success, to copy this feature of his style. Second, Leyendecker was an exceptionally strong graphic designer who constructed his pictures almost in the same way as an architect designs buildings. Again, it is difficult to find artists who equaled Leyendecker in this respect. Elvgren and Rockwell were among the more successful, although nearly every illustrator of the twentieth century tried.
Another member of the Gibson-Christy-Fisher club of glamour artists was James Montgomery Flagg (1877-1960). He painted many mainstream subjects, as did the others in the group, but the focus of his work was painting pictures of beautiful American women. Like Christy, Flagg was a darling of the media; both often featured in newspaper and magazine articles, or in newsreels in US movie theaters. Although he became legendary for his classic World War I recruiting poster, (Uncle Sam I Want You) his Flagg Girls had their own admirers, including Elvgren (the two met briefly in New York in the mid 1950s). Elvgren was most impressed with Flagg's command of the pen-and-ink medium, evident in his depiction of Garbo and Friends. This illustration was used as the endpapers in Susan Meyer's James Montgomery Flagg (Watson-Guptill, New York, 1974). Although Elvgren himself never worked in this medium, he nonetheless appreciated Flagg's (and Gibson's) talent for brilliant line drawings.
Many of the leading illustrators who directly influenced Elvgren as his career began to take shape in the late 1930s were students of Howard Pyle's Brandywine School. Chief among them was Harvey T. Dunn, Pyle's protÈgÈ and most accomplished student. Dunn also became an influential teacher who passed on his own form of Pyle's philosophy to hundreds of artists. Dean Cornwell (1892-1960) was perhaps the most famous of Dunn's former students and his influence was so great on Elvgren's generation of artists that they called him the Dean of Illustrators.
That Dunn was crucial to Elvgren's development is clear from the huge file of tear sheets of Dunn's work that he collected. Three inches thick, this contained mostly examples of Dunn's magazine story illustrations and advertising subjects. Also in the file was a fascinating Time magazine article dated June 9, 1941 about Dunn and one of his most famous paintings. The work depicted a sensuous (and, at that time, highly provocative) full frontal nude that Dunn had painted in 1939, and it was accompanied by a photograph of the artist standing proudly in front of his creation. The article related how, when Dunn's nude was exhibited in May 1941 at the Guild Artists Bureau in New York (in a show entitled "Sexhibition"), George Baker, the gallery's director, invited the public to vote in five categories: best company on a desert island; best company in a desert; best company; best; and Whew! The caption the magazine used revealed the results Four Bests and a Whew! Dunn's painting had won in all five categories.
Finally, McClelland Barclay (1891-1943) was also a role model for Elvgren and his peers during the 1930s. His highly stylized Art Deco paintings portrayed the "beautiful people" of the period, with special emphasis on the women. Among his well-known series of ads for Lucky Strike cigarettes, he featured Miss America of 1932 endorsing her favorite brand. Barclay's powerful story illustrations for Cosmopolitan greatly impressed the young Elvgren; they were painted in a bold, brash style that utilized unusual perspectives in the composition. His work for Fisher Body (General Motors) helped to cement his reputation. Unfortunately, Barclay died in World War II while painting battle scenes on a ship that was torpedoed.
With these various artistic influences fresh in our minds, we can now turn to the story of Gil Elvgren and his remarkable career.
ELVGREN: THE FORMATIVE YEARS
In 1933, as the Great Depression held America captive in its grip, an idealistic nineteen-year-old eloped with his high school sweetheart. It was a cold day in St. Paul, Minnesota, but for Gillette A. Elvgren and Janet Cummins the air was rich with the sunshine of romance, excitement and future challenges. Elvgren knew a lot about cold days. He was born on one in 1914 (March 15), and experienced many more as he grew up in St. Paul-Minneapolis. His parents, Alex and Goldie Elvgren, owned a paint and wallpaper store in downtown St. Paul, and its neon sign spelt out the family surname in a script lettering very similar to their son's early artistic signature.
After leaving University High School, Elvgren wanted to be an architect. His parents had encouraged him in this, because they had already noted signs of his natural talent for drawing from the time he was eight, he had occasionally been sent home from school for sketching in the margins of his schoolbooks. Elvgren eventually went to the University of Minnesota to study architecture and design, but also took art courses at the Minneapolis Art Institute. It was there, during a summer class in 1933, that he decided the process of creating art suited him far more than designing buildings or parking lots.
In the fall of the same year, he made a second important decision, one that would enrich his life for the next thirty-three years: he would marry Janet Cummins. The couple waited almost two months before telling their families of the marriage, which added a special celebratory note to that year's Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. In the New Year, the newlyweds moved to Chicago for the artistic opportunities it offered. New York might have been their first choice, but Chicago was closer to home and just the place to further Gil's art education. It was also smaller than New York and perhaps somewhat less threatening.
On arriving in Chicago, the young artist set about establishing himself. Ever a prudent man, he vowed to absorb and learn as much as possible as quickly as possible, so that he could start work as soon as possible. He enrolled at the prestigious American Academy of Art in downtown Chicago, where he struck up a close friendship with Bill Mosby, an accomplished artist and teacher who always remained proud of how Gil developed under his watchful eye. In an interview now in Brown and Bigelow's archives, Mosby recalled those days at the Institute:
Teaching art is like teaching mathematics or anything else. There are certain basic principles, which anyone can learn. You can teach anyone to draw and paint, but you can't make him or her an artist.
When Gil Elvgren came to the American Academy, he had talent. Yes, but no more than most of the students who come here. The thing that set him apart from all the rest was a fierce determination to do one thing. So many of the students come here without a clearly defined idea of what they want to do. Gil, from the very first, knew exactly what he wanted. He wanted to be a good painter more than anything else. Into two years he packed three and a half years of work. He had classes during the day; he went to night classes and classes during the summer. In the off-hours and on weekends he painted.
He was a good student and worked harder than anyone I have ever seen. He took every course that could teach him anything about painting. We tried to tell him that it was not good to put all his eggs in one basket and that he should take some of the courses in advertising layout and lettering that would give him a more flexible background for commercial work. He admitted that there was logic in this and appreciated the interest in his welfare, but persistently refused to have anything to do with [those subjects]. In the two years, his progress was phenomenal. Without question he turned out to be one of the most successful of our alumni.
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.
Aside from his skill and ability, he is also one of the nicest guys in the business. He wears the same size hat today that he did before anyone had ever heard of Gil Elvgren.
In fact, Elvgren never took a break or stopped working from the moment he enrolled at the Institute until the day he graduated two years later in almost half the normal time. His student paintings were so good that the school often used them to illustrate their catalogues and brochures. During his years at the Academy, Elvgren met a number of fellow artists who would become his friends for life. Some of them formed an informal network whose members would help one another professionally throughout their careers. They included Harold Anderson, Joyce Ballantyne, Al Buell, Thornton Utz and Coby Whitmore, who were later tremendously influenced by Elvgren's art. Even at this early stage of his development, his peers were struck by his artistry, and the way his hands worked magic on the canvas.
Yet at this point in his career, he had still to sell a single painting or receive a first commission. Gil might feel his time was approaching, but the Elvgrens struggled financially during their time in Chicago. Their reward was the tremendous progress Gil knew he was making.
In 1936 they decided to move back to St. Paul, where Gil proudly opened a studio. Fortunately, it was not long before he received his first paid commission: a front cover for a fashion catalogue, depicting a handsome young man decked out in a snazzy double-breasted jacket and summertime-cool white slacks. The original artwork was executed in oil paint on illustration board and was unsigned, as the company's art director had specifically requested. No sooner had Elvgren delivered the artwork than the company's president called to congratulate him and to commission another half dozen catalogue covers. The young artist was on his way!
The next ëinteresting' call followed within weeks. This time, it concerned a possible advertising commission for which Elvgren would have to present himself and his portfolio. The assignment, he learned, would be to paint a portrait of the Dionne Quintuplets, who had created a sensation in the American media. This was the break Elvgren had dreamed of but had not expected for several years. And more than just the beautiful children, the commission had another decisive bonus the client was Brown and Bigelow, the world's largest and most important calendar company. Elvgren's two Dionne Quintuplets paintings were published in calendars for 1937 and 1938 to enormous success. That Brown and Bigelow paid the quintuplets a total of $58,097.17 that year in royalties indicates how tremendously popular Elvgren's first two calendar pictures were. Needless to say, everyone at the company was happy with Elvgren. Starting his career by painting America's most famous, most loved and most admired young girls, he had become that rarity an overnight commercial success.
Early in 1937, Elvgren was approached by Brown and Bigelow's biggest competitor, the Louis F. Dow Calendar Company, also located in St. Paul. Their art director wanted Elvgren to paint a series of pin-up girls, an assignment he eagerly accepted. The young artist could scarcely believe his good fortune: not only had he been lucky to get such tremendous "breaks" so soon after opening his first studio, but he would also now be painting beautiful girls and seeing his work widely reproduced in calendars. What Elvgren did not realize was that the Dow Company would reproduce his work in several additional formats, including notepads, ink blotters, mutoscope cards, matchbook covers and playing cards. They even produced specially designed booklets with an Elvgren pin-up on the cover and a dozen Elvgren prints inside measuring 8" x 10" (20.3 x 25.4 cm).
When Elvgren left Dow in 1944 to work for Brown and Bigelow, the company hired an artist to paint over certain areas of the pin-ups he had executed for them; in this way, Dow could use the images a second time without having to pay Elvgren any fees or royalties. Fortunately, the artist selected for this task, Vaughan Alden Bass, was very competent and approached the job with great respect for Elvgren's talent. Thus, Bass generally painted over only the clothing and/or the background of an Elvgren painting and left the face, hands, and legs untouched. A good example of Bass's approach is the overpainted version of Elvgren's A Perfect Pair, which can be compared with the picture first published by Dow in a series of portraits, including a calendar, a twelve-print booklet, a mutoscope card, and a matchbook cover.
In 1938 Elvgren received his first commissions for several lifesize die-cut in-store display figures of both men and women. More than 6,500 of his almost lifesize pin-ups for Royal Crown Soda were distributed to grocery stores throughout the United States. His die-cut wall-unit displays portraying a grandfatherly type known as the Toasting Scotsman were designed for Frankfort Distilleries of Louisville, Kentucky and produced by the Mattingly and Moore Company. The year 1938 was also significant for Gil and Janet Elvgren for a quite different reason, becoming the proud parents of their first child, Karen.
For the next two years, Elvgren remained busy with various advertising commissions, some magazine editorial work and of course his pin-ups for Louis F. Dow. With the fantastic success Gil was enjoying professionally and the added joy that their first child brought to their home life, the couple felt ready to consider how best to shape their future. Most of Elvgren's business was coming from Chicago and New York. There was no question in his mind that he could do even better if he were based in one of those two art centers. As they had once before, they selected Chicago, and the family of three prepared to move.
Shortly after his arrival in the Windy City in 1940, Elvgren secured a position at the noted Stevens/Gross Studio. There he met the man who would become his true mentor, Haddon H. Sundblom (1899-1976). Not only would the two men become the best of friends, but Sundblom's influence on Elvgren's artistic development was enormous. The older artist was already something of an idol to Elvgren. The younger man had been assembling a file of tear sheets on Sundblom long before they met, and while most of the sheets were magazine story illustrations, the famous Coca-Cola ads also figured among them. (It was Sundblom who in due course introduced Elvgren to the Coca-Cola Company, as a result of which Elvgren's Coca-Cola ads appeared beside Sundblom's on newsstands, billboards and calendars.)
Sundblom and Howard Stevens had established the studio that developed into Stevens/Gross back in 1925, in association with their friend Edwin Henry. While Elvgren admired the painting styles of all three artists, it was Sundblom that impressed him most. When Elvgren arrived in Chicago, Sundblom was painting a national series of ads for the Cashmere Bouquet Soap Company. Sundblom had done only a few pin-up and glamour paintings exclusively for that market, but they were real winners. Most of the time, he had used his own name and signature on his pin-ups. However, if a pin-up subject was meant to be intentionally provocative (for instance, one in which the model is wearing lingerie or some kind of transparent material), Sundblom would not sign the painting. In such cases, the publisher (almost always Louis F. Dow) would use a "slug" signature giving Sundblom's nom de plume, Showalter.
As their friendship developed, Sundblom introduced Elvgren to Andrew Loomis (1892-1959), who was also one of Elvgren's early heroes. Elvgren had admired Loomis for his glamour pin-ups as well as his prize-winning magazine story illustrations, which were brilliantly designed and constructed. Loomis was also teaching at Elvgren's former school, the American Academy of Art, so it is likely they would have met anyway. In the event, as a result of his meeting with Loomis, in 1940 Elvgren agreed to teach night classes at the Academy that fall.
Earl Gross and Howard Stevens both agreed with Sundblom that Elvgren was the perfect candidate to take over much of the Coca- Cola advertising work that their studio was producing for the Atlanta-based company. The decision was a major milestone in Elvgren's career it led to the first of a twenty-five-year series of advertising works for Coca-Cola that are now considered landmarks in the history of American illustration. Elvgren's first job was to paint an image for a die-cut in-store stand-up display for national distribution. The enthusiastic response by Coca-Cola's art director and executives was the harbinger of things to come.
Having completed his first billboard painting for the Coca-Cola account, Elvgren brought the artwork into his class at the Academy of Art to illuminate a facet of the advertising illustration business. He hoped to impress his students with the fact that this painting would soon be seen as a giant highway billboard. For reproduction purposes, the image was divided into twenty-four separate sections, which were later reassembled or glued together to form the advertising sign. Elvgren was particularly proud of one Coca-Cola Girl painting that he created for a full-page national magazine ad, and requested that the original artwork be returned to him, later giving it to his friend Al Buell.
Immediately after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, General Electric asked Elvgren to do some national advertising work for their War Effort campaign. His first ad painting for the company, published in June 1942 as a full page in Good Housekeeping , carried the caption "She Knows What Freedom Really Means" and depicted a proud Elvgren Girl dressed in an officer's uniform of the Red Cross Motor Corps. By the time the US had become involved in the war, Elvgren had already had his pin-ups published and reproduced on millions of advertising specialty products and, of course, on calendars of all sizes and shapes. With the need to encourage the troops, the Louis F. Dow Company very smartly repackaged some of the special twelve-print Elvgren pin-up booklets so that they could be easily mailed without an envelope from the United States to GIs fighting abroad. These proved a smashing success.
On the home front also, Elvgren's pin-ups produced for Dow continued to enjoy great popularity, the calendar prints now often being used to raise money at bond rallies. Men and women alike could enjoy their spare time putting together a jigsaw puzzle featuring an Elvgren pin-up. Elvgren's best-selling image at Louis F. Dow had been his Perfect Pair, but close on its heels was The High Sign. So successful was the latter that it was the second image that Dow asked Vaughan Alden Bass to overpaint during the war years.
Newspapers and magazines of the period were filled with stories about the soldiers who were abroad fighting the war, for it would be hard to find an American who did not have a neighbor or loved one in the armed services. Often focusing on the morale of the troops, such stories would be illustrated with snapshots of the soldiers in their barracks or tents or perhaps even in a battlefield trench during a lull in the fighting. Quite often, one can spot Elvgren's Louis F. Dow pin-up prints and booklets hanging on a wall, glued to a knapsack, or clutched by a young, obviously lonely soldier. The only other pin-up artist whose work was so prominently featured in these stories was Alberto Vargas, who had Esquire magazine behind him. Elvgren's accomplishment is all the more amazing in that he had attained such popularity within five years of opening his first studio. No doubt his art had met with such a response from the American public because it offered escape from reality, and even solace, during the dark days of the war.
With the birth of Gil Jr. in 1942, the Elvgren family was expanding. Business was expanding likewise. Later that year, Elvgren began a series of national advertising paintings for Four Roses, a blended whiskey company that wanted its product to be shown in a recreational setting. The first piece published depicts a group of men enjoying their favorite tipple while on a deep-sea fishing trip. The second in the series was a scene of couples sharing drinks in front of a fireplace at a ski lodge. The original paintings in the Four Roses series, done on illustration board rather than canvas, were the first he had executed on this material since 1936.
Al Buell, a fellow illustrator and one of Elvgren's cronies in Chicago, was already working at the Gross/Stevens Studio when Elvgren arrived. I interviewed Buell several times in 1980 for a cover feature about the history of American pin-up and glamour art for Antique Trader. In the course of our conversations, he told me that Elvgren used to talk to him all the time about three artists whose magazine illustration work particularly interested him: they were Charles E. Chambers, Pruett Carter, and John LaGatta. Chambers (1883-1941) had studied with George Bridgman (the father of modern anatomical drawing), whom Elvgren considered to be one of the greatest artists of the 1930s.
Carter (1891-1955) was one of the artists whose style Elvgren aimed to emulate. Buell said that Elvgren had hoped some day to study with Carter at the Grand Central School of Art (where Harvey Dunn also taught), but that the opportunity had never presented itself, since Elvgren's busy career never left him time. Carter was best known for his romantic illustrations for magazine stories. Buell also sent me a tear sheet he had once borrowed from Elvgren's file on LaGatta (1894-1977), another important artist who specialized in romantic boy-girl scenes. According to Buell, Elvgren regarded LaGatta as one of the best fine-art illustrators working in the commercial arena and especially admired his depiction of feminine beauty. Like his advertising work, LaGatta's magazine story illustrations were often designed to highlight the sensual aspects of beauty.
Nineteen forty-three was another banner year for Gil Elvgren . His schedule was booked solid with commissions, his children were growing, and Janet became pregnant with their third child. Louis F. Dow was aggressively marketing and promoting the pin-ups Gil had done for the company several years earlier. Life seemed pretty good to the talented, respected artist and happy family man. Yet what followed put all this in the shade.
It all began in 1944, when Elvgren was approached by Brown and Bigelow to come aboard as a staff artist. This invitation meant that his work would be in more or less direct competition with work by the company's other pin-up and glamour artists, who were the crËme de la crËme of the field. Rolf Armstrong, Earl Moran, and ZoÎ Mozert had already established themselves as big moneymakers for the publishing house, while Elvgren's only previous involvement with the company had been with the two Dionne Quintuplet calendars some years earlier.
While Elvgren was pondering whether to accept Brown and Bigelow's offer, Janet gave birth to their third child and second son, Drake. This new addition to the household had to be considered as Gil weighed the company's offer of a salary that averaged out at about $1,000 per painting, with an expected income of $24,000 the first year. A large sum of money in 1944, it meant that he would become one of the highest paid illustrators in America and certainly be in a unique position at Brown and Bigelow.
Before he committed himself to working exclusively for Brown and Bigelow, Elvgren accepted from the Philadelphia firm of Joseph C. Hoover and Sons his first (and only) commission to paint a glamour-girl subject. Because he did not want to create problems with Brown and Bigelow, he accepted the job on condition that Hoover would accept the canvas unsigned and not publish it as his work. Elvgren received $2,500 for the painting, which, at almost 40" x 30" (101.6 x 76.2 cm), was the largest pin-up he had ever created. His pin-ups for Louis F. Dow all measured 28" x 22" (71.1 x 55.9 cm), with the exception of Help Wanted (see figure 218), which he painted in the odd size of 33" x 27" (83.8 x 68.6 cm).
Elvgren's 1945 painting for Hoover, entitled Dream Girl (see figure 159), became the biggest-selling "evening gown" pin-up ever published by Hoover. It was kept in their Superior line for more than ten years, and in 1945 was also reproduced as an in-store display ad for the Campana Balm Home Dispenser Gift Package. After the rapid success of Dream Girl, Hoover's president approached Elvgren about doing a series of calendar paintings, but by that time he had decided to accept Brown and Bigelow's offer.
Elvgren's arrangement with Brown and Bigelow allowed him the freedom to continue doing story illustrations for magazines and advertising work for Coca-Cola. In fact, he could accept any other advertising work as long as there was no conflict with his Brown and Bigelow work. And so 1945 was a turning point in Elvgren's long career: the Brown and Bigelow deal marked the beginning of its most important phase, lasting more than thirty years.
Charlie Ward, president of Brown and Bigelow and the man who had persuaded Elvgren to join the company, was a fun-loving, "live hard, play hard, enjoy life" kind of person. The two soon struck up a good relationship, and Ward told Elvgren he had plans to market the artist's name and work as they had never been marketed before. Keeping his promise, Ward introduced Elvgren to the company's sales staff and national clientele with all the fanfare such a star deserved. Elvgren's name and landmark style were immediately recognized when Ward described him as the artist responsible for the immensely popular Coca-Cola advertisements and roadside highway billboards.
The March 1946 issue of McCall's contained Elvgren's first double-page story illustration. The painting was also noteworthy in depicting the first true Elvgren Man, pictured in a romantic pose with one of the most beautiful Elvgren Girls. As reproduced on the printed page, the picture had spectacular results, but Elvgren had to disappoint all the top magazines that subsequently clamored for story illustrations. Unfortunately, there just were not enough hours in the day to accommodate even a small portion of the work he was being offered.
Elvgren began his Brown and Bigelow pin-up series by selecting a larger 30"x 24" (76.2 by 61 cm) canvas as the perfect format. This was considerably larger than the 28" x 22" (71.1 x 53.3 cm) format he had used almost exclusively for the Dow pin-up series. Except for several special commissions in an even larger format, almost all his Brown and Bigelow paintings for the next 30 years would use the same format as his first canvas for the company.
During Elvgren's first month with Brown and Bigelow in 1945 (doing work for publication in 1946), word came down from the executive offices that Ward had specifically asked his new artist for a nude pin-up for the 1946 line. Enthusiastically accepting the assignment, as he wanted to please Ward by producing a best-selling calendar picture, Elvgren painted a work measuring 36" x 30" (91.4 x 76.2 cm), the largest nude he had ever done. Gay Nymph depicted a beautiful nude blonde basking on a beach in the purple-blue moonlight and surrounded by exquisite lilacs. The figure became so popular that Brown and Bigelow rushed out a special deck of playing cards carrying the image and packaged it with another deck bearing a nude painted by another of their leading artists, ZoÎ Mozert. The dual pack, named Yeux Doux and captioned "In the Modern Translation By Gil Elvgren ZoÎ Mozert," was sold as a promotional item, with the client's name printed on the box cover. The packaging was high-quality, and the set made an impressive-looking gift for clients to give their customers at Christmas 1946:
The following year Ward again wanted another Elvgren nude, this time with the double set of cards featuring Elvgren alone. Vision of Beauty was an instant hit, equaling the sales figures of Gay Nymph, which itself had set a record for Brown and Bigelow nudes. Vision of Beauty was a much more conservative, almost fine-art nude in an interior setting. The double-deck box carried the legend "Mais Oui by Gil Elvgren."
During his career at Brown and Bigelow, Elvgren was able to paint only one nude subject a year, and some years the company did not want any nudes at all for their forthcoming line. Since Elvgren enjoyed painting nudes, he would occasionally do them for his own pleasure. Only a few such oils are known to exist at present, among them a wonderful Asian model shown reclining on Elvgren's studio couch during a break in a painting session. This painting was done on canvas board measuring 16" x 27" (40.6 x 68.6 cm), and dates from about 1947.
Another nude, which like the previous painting hung in Elvgren's studio, was painted in a bare two hours (6). It shows one of Elvgren's regular models from the 1940s seated in a big, comfortable chair in his studio. Inscribed "2 Hour Sketch" and signed "Elvgren," it was painted on canvas, and measures 29" x 23" (73.7 x 58.4 cm). Executed some time between 1940 and 1945, the work demonstrates Elvgren's extraordinary dexterity. Few artists could create an oil of this quality, with such impressionistic brilliance, in so short a time.
The first three pin-up subjects that Elvgren delivered to Brown and Bigelow in 1948 became the company's biggest sellers within a couple of weeks of their release. One of these, He Thinks I'm Too Good to Be True, was the first of Elvgren's non-nude pin-ups to be published by Brown and Bigelow as a giant-size (30" x 20" [76.2 x 50.8 cm]) "hanger," or single-sheet, calendar print. This proved so popular that the image was soon rushed out as a deck of playing cards. In 1952, it reappeared as one of twelve pictures in a special issue called the Ballyhoo Calendar. Brown and Bigelow art director Clair Fry selected the image as the front cover for the envelope. Beside the striking title was the caption "Limited Edition 12 Enticing Eyefuls In Full Color!" Once again, an Elvgren product, the first of its kind for Brown and Bigelow, had generated a great deal of unexpected income for the publisher.
While Elvgren's Brown and Bigelow nudes and pin-ups were enjoying such wide acclaim and sales success, a fellow artist whose career Elvgren had followed was also in the national spotlight. Albert Dorne (1904-1965) was the creator of a series of monthly ads for the popular 1015 Wurlitzer Juke Box published from 1946 as full pages in every leading American magazine. Elvgren kept a comprehensive tear-sheet file on these advertisements, as he felt their composition and handling of color was quite progressive for the time.Dorne was elected president of the Society of Illustrators and became founder-director of the Famous Artists Schools in Westport, Connecticut.
Between 1948 and 1949, Elvgren introduced another innovation to the advertising-specialty world in the form of an Elvgren Girl that could be manufactured as a letter opener. Brown and Bigelow produced the sculpture in a cream- colored plastic and packaged each letter opener in a folding container. Clients who purchased this unique product could run their advertising message on a beach ball, which the girl held over her head .Brown and Bigelow had printed a special message on the packaging, to be read when the buyer opened the new Elvgren "Eye Opener" letter opener: "Yes sir! When there's a job to be done, a service to perform, or a need to be met, we're ready for action. And when it's time for a smile, we like to erase those frown lines with something on the light side, for all the work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. So . . . meet Ellen, the Eye Opener, a girl who'll appeal to your ëmail' instincts . . . as she opens your mail, let her serve to remind you of us. Treat her nice . . . she's a swell gal. Designed by Elvgren."
By the end of the decade, Elvgren was the most important artist Brown and Bigelow had under contract. In his short time with the company, he had painted a half dozen wildly successful images and created an innovative product that had never featured before in their line. With the vigorous assistance of the media, his art had now begun to reach a vast new national audience. In March 1948, See magazine published a five-page article called Eye-Catching Calendars on Elvgren and his work. Elvgren and his studio assistant, Ewen Lotten, were pictured positioning 18-year-old pin-up model Pat Varnum on a special set that Elvgren had built in his studio solely for the purpose of photographing this one model for one calendar-painting assignment.
The magazine U.S. Camera followed with a similar article in March 1949 focusing on Elvgren's calendar work and the process by which he created a pin-up painting. Titled "An Artist Lights a Model," it specifically discussed Elvgren's personal preferences in respect of studio lights when shooting a model for an assignment. Five months later, in August 1949, Elvgren found himself and his work the cover story in a third national magazine, called Pix. The story, "Legs Are Big Business", was subtitled "Calendar Artist Elvgren's Sexy Masterpieces Are Big Sellers" and featured the model Candy Montgomery, who posed for Elvgren's Keeping Posted. Thanks to the phenomenal success of Elvgren's pin-ups, Brown and Bigelow were harvesting a steady stream of new clients. By 1950, the firm had hundreds of new clients for advertising-specialty products bearing images by Elvgren. The artist himself was also being approached by new companies and major advertising agencies that wanted to commission him for various commercial jobs. And, as before, there simply was not enough time to handle even a fraction of the work on offer. The companies for whom Elvgren did manage to fit in advertising work included Coca-Cola, Orange Crush, Schlitz, Red Top Beer, Ovaltine, Royal Crown Soda, Campana Balm, General Tire, Sealy Mattress, Serta Perfect Sleep, Napa Auto Parts, Detzler Automotive Finishes, Frankfort Distilleries, Four Roses Blended Whisky, General Electric Appliance and Pangburn's Chocolates.
Faced with such demand for his work, in 1950 Elvgren considered opening his own studio staffed by artists drawn from illustrators he had studied with, artists who were once his own students, and talented aspiring illustrators. There were many such artists who admired both Elvgren and what became known as Sundblom's Chicago School of "mayonnaise painting." (The latter phrase was applied to Sundblom's and Elvgren's art because both achieved such a creamy, "smooth as silk" look in their paintings.) However, after weighing the pros and cons (including all the headaches and responsibility of operating a larger-scale business, not to mention the loss of time to his own career), Elvgren let the idea drop.
America emerged had from the World War II years a new country. The "baby boomer" phenomenon was in full force, housing starts were at an all-time peak, and the illustration industry was entering the most productive decade of its history. Between 1950 and 1960, American illustration art experienced a golden age as the demand for editorial, advertising, book and calendar artwork reached record levels. Elvgren continued to keep an eye open for new ideas. As earlier in his career, there were artists whose work he especially followed and kept in his file of tear sheets for reference.
One such artist was Tom Lovell (1909-1997), who had the biggest folder in Elvgren's file cabinet; almost three inches thick, it was filled with almost every piece of illustration Lovell had ever had published. In the margin of one magazine love-story illustration, in which Lovell had depicted a pinup-like subject, Elvgren had written comments, along with a note to remind Al Buell to review this subject. In fact, in a kind of mutual admiration society, Elvgren and Lovell would call each other on the telephone to pass compliments back and forth. Also distinguished by mutual respect was Elvgren's relationship with the American illustrator Walter Baumhofer (1904-1985). Both worked for the art director of McCall's from 1946 into the mid-1950s. Elvgren admired Baumhofer's brilliant use of lighting to set the ideal mood for a scene from a story. Like Sundblom, who often used light to render his story illustrations dramatic, Baumhofer was most successful in capturing the particular quality of a written scene in visual terms. Elvgren had followed Baumhofer's career since the 1930s, when the older artist had painted pulp magazine covers at Street and Smith alongside Robert G. Harris (1911- ). Harris painted in a slick, almost photorealistic, manner that many of his contemporaries admired. Elvgren drew Brown and Bigelow's attention to him, and Harris was commissioned to do his only calendar pin-up for the company. Although executed as a glamour evening-dress subject , the Harris calendar piece commanded much respect from Brown and Bigelow's staff artists and executives.
In a telephone interview a few years ago, Harris told me that he remembered how Elvgren was envied by most of his fellow illustrators, especially at the Society of Illustrators in New York. For them, Elvgren had a "dream career." He painted beautiful women every day of his life, while they had to regularly accept the often boring tasks required in their commissions.
From the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s, Elvgren was also inspired by the work of Walt Otto. Like Elvgren, Otto was a "mainstream" commercial illustrator as well as a pin-up and glamour artist. Both men had been educated in Chicago and started their careers there, and each enjoyed the other's work. Similarities to Elvgren's style can be seen in Otto's Saturday Evening Post cover of a skiing girl and in his advertising painting for Alka-Seltzer.
Because of Elvgren's great popularity, Brown and Bigelow often used him for special promotions. Within the company, he spent much time with the national sales managers, since they and their regional salesmen were responsible for selling the new products every year "on the road," he met the press, the other media and the public at various publicity events. As a result of his travels, Elvgren had the opportunity to meet many people, including a number of celebrities, some of whom became close friends. One such was film star Harold Lloyd, who, around 1950, introduced Elvgren to 35mm stereo color photography. Already an avid photographer, Elvgren immersed himself in this new area of interest whenever he could find the time.
Lloyd valued Elvgren first and foremost as a friend rather than as a noted illustrator surrounded by beauty and glamour. He was nonetheless a fan of Elvgren's work, and around 1951 Elvgren gave him one of his best Brown and Bigelow nudes. This was the first pin-up (and also the first nude) that Clair Fry asked Elvgren to create specifically for publication as on playing cards. The result was To Have, an oil-on-board painting measuring 27" x 19" (68.6 x 48.3 cm). A second similar image was entitled To Hold. The resulting double deck of cards was manufactured with a special die-cut window flap that showed just the model's face. The copy inside the flap read: "Whether they be blondes, brunettes or redheads, gentlemen really prefer GIRLS . . . Especially those charmers painted by Gil Elvgren. And whatever preference you may have in the way of card games, we hope your pleasure will be heightened by the presence of these two lovelies." When the inside flap was removed, the full nude pin-up was revealed.
Elvgren could afford to give away his paintings because in 1951 his salary arrangements with Brown and Bigelow had changed. From his previous rate of $1,000 per canvas, he was now paid approximately $2,500 per painting, with a projected yearly output of twenty-four subjects. With the supplementary income from fees for his magazine illustrations and numerous national advertising accounts, Elvgren was able to move his family from downtown Chicago to the suburb of Winnetka. As soon as they moved into their new home, Gil began building a studio in the attic. Fitted with overhead windows that allowed the northern light to flood his easel, the studio was completed within months. Elvgren's son Drake told me that his father initially worked alone in the studio, but soon hired a full-time assistant who helped light and photograph the models, built sets with various props to portray different subjects and prepared Elvgren's paints and tools. Having a studio located in his home enabled Elvgren to work more efficiently, since he thus eliminated commuting and other time-consuming intrusions on his day.
Getting ideas for new subjects was a constant problem. Like many other artists in the pin-up and glamour world, he often felt every imaginable subject had already been done over and over. When he worked at the Stevens/Gross Studio with a dozen other fellow artists, Elvgren had regularly discussed ideas with them, and they in turn asked for advice from him. I remember Joyce Ballantyne telling me in a phone conversation about 1982 that she and Elvgren often traded ideas. She went on to say that it was the practice at the Studio for artists to help each other out in other ways as well: if someone was not feeling well or was under pressure from a client or a deadline to finish a painting, one of the others would take up a brush and finish the painting for the beleaguered colleague. At home, Elvgren did not have that luxury, although sometimes, when stuck for a creative thought, he would pick up the telephone and see what his artist friends might suggest.
Gil was also generous with ideas for friends like George Hughes, who painted more than 125 front covers for the magazine Saturday Evening Post. Gil once told him about a scene he had witnessed at a beach, and Hughes developed the idea into a pin-up-like subject published as a Saturday Evening Post cover on August 28, 1954. Elvgren came up with a similar suggestion for his close friend Thornton Utz (1914-1999 ), who told me in an interview many years ago: "Gil was smart as a whip when it came to ideas. One day I was stuck for a new Post cover idea and Gil mentioned he had been in a record store the day before. He described all the people in each booth listening to the record they were thinking about purchasing and I took his thought and worked up some preliminary sketches. Eventually [April 19, 1952] the idea became a published Post cover"
In 1951, Modern Man magazine did a feature story on Elvgren and used as a cover picture Elvgren photographing model Candy Montgomery for the assignment that would be entitled Keeping Posted. In the feature, Elvgren is referred to as "America's greatest painter of topical art." When asked what he thought of American women, Elvgren said they "are infinitely smarter today. They are more beautiful than ever before. They are more natural. They are not tying themselves in like they used to. And they are not looking like boys any more, thank God." He also told the magazine that "movies, TV, and magazines have had an enormous influence in changing old-fashioned standards. And calendar art has probably had more influence than any of these."
During the 1950s, Figure Quarterly magazine interviewed Clair Fry several times about Elvgren. His perception of who Elvgren was and how he was in those days is quite informative. First of all, Gil is one of the most able draftsmen and painters in the commercial field. That, actually, is only a small part of the story. There are many able draftsmen and painters who have never risen above complete obscurity. I suppose, considering the difference, it is like two men, each having a fine set of carpenter's tools, the tools being comparable in every respect; one of them has a clear-cut plan of the house he is going to build in his mind, while the other man with equally fine equipment, works without that clearly defined understanding of an objective.
Gil has excellent taste. That is a commodity hard to come by. Many artists with great ability never are accepted because line and pattern, excellent though they may be from the literal point of view, add up to an effect that is clumsy, dull, and lacking that peculiar essential which in real life makes one particular girl stand out in sharp contrast to the great average.
Gil also has wit. Not only in his situations having a humorous turn, but even more in the ingenuity and inventiveness shown in his color schemes, poses, gestures, and all that goes into a lively, exciting statement that captures universal attention. His work is sincere and very honest. The reaction to Gil's paintings is that here is a real girl. The carefully thought out gestures and expressions are done with such mastery that they convey the exact meaning Gil intended without the phoney quality that exists in such a vast percentage of commercial painting. Gil has his finger on the pulse of the current evaluation of feminine beauty. This is a most important factor. If you look at the pictures of pretty women from Rubens on, you find a distinct change in the yardstick of various eras as to what is and what isn't beauty. Gil knows exactly what the ingredients are to touch the fancy of that judgment at this moment. Maybe, when everything else has been said, that knowledge and the ability to translate it is the most important factor in Gil's outstanding success.
The recognition of his abilities, as described by Fry, meant that Elvgren's doorbell never stopped ringing. Callers ranged from those who implored him to do "just one job" to those who wanted him to do everything for their company or product. In the early 1950s, the Schmidt Lithograph Company of Chicago and San Francisco succeeded in hiring Elvgren to paint a number of "universal billboards" for their varied clients. These billboards were so called because they featured a format and images that could be easily adapted to sell almost any product. Most of these works consisted primarily of glamour heads, almost always without background props or settings, although the first two assignments Elvgren delivered were exceptions to that format. The first painting Elvgren executed for Schmidt was entitled Poolside Fun. It depicted a beautiful Elvgren Girl drying her hair after after a dip in the pool, while in the background a couple seated poolside is being served a beer by a butler. In the upper left corner, another Elvgren Girl stands on a diving board about to take the plunge. The entire scene is held together by Elvgren's brilliant perspective and composition.
Elvgren's second job for Schmidt was a portrayal of a smiling beauty holding a tray of beer bottles. The artist himself painted the title, Pick of the Picnic directly onto the work. Most of Elvgren's work for Schmidt was executed on illustration board measuring approximately 15 x 30 inches (38.1 x 76.2 cm). In most cases, he used only the leftmost third of the board for his image and left the rest of the board blank for the advertising copy. These original paintings have since then sometimes been cut down in order to eliminate the blank area, where a collector wanted to frame just the painting; however, there are a few diehard collectors who insist on leaving the board as it was originally made.
In another version of Pick of the Picnic!, the bottles have been changed by mechanical overlay into a single quart bottle of A-1 Pilsner Beer. The Elvgren Girl pointing her finger and smiling was modeled by Myrna Hansen, who started working for Elvgren in 1951 when she was fifteen years old, and later became one of his favorites. Another painting, of a girl wearing a pearl necklace was used in two different versions by Schmidt, the company having sold the same image to two separate businesses. Elvgren's paintings were similarly altered to suit a specific situation when they were reproduced in advertisements for Pangburn's Chocolates.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Elvgren took great pleasure in following the careers of artists whose work he admired. Since he continued to accept magazine commissions for many years, some of these artists came from that field. His file on Jon Whitcomb (1906-) was massive, and seems to have included almost every published illustration that Whitcomb did during his prolific career. Unlike Elvgren, Whitcomb worked mainly on illustration board but would, very occasionally, execute an oil on canvas for a magazine story illustration.
Another artist respected by every illustrator at work between the mid 1930s and the 1950s, including Elvgren, was Edwin Georgi (1896-1964). Utilizing iridescent pastel colors long before they were fashionable, Georgi developed a dramatic approach to color that became his trademark. Almost always focusing on beautiful women (and handsome men), his work was seen in all the leading American magazines. Elvgren's appreciation for the talent of his peers underscores how generous and unpretentious a man he was.
After settling in the new house in Winnetka, some time around 1953 Elvgren and his family went to Florida on vacation. Almost immediately upon arrival, the artist fell in love with this popular vacation spot. For one who had lived with snow and ice for so long, the clean blue sky, the tropical winds, and the swaying palm trees were just too good to be true. And, even though he had just set up a new life and home in Winnetka, he started to consider moving to the Golden State.
In January 1955 Charlie Ward called Elvgren to request a special painting of a nude that would be used for Brown and Bigelow's 1957 line as a one-sheet hanger. This format is a large usually 20 x 30 or 22 x 28 inches (50.8 x 76.2 or 55.9 x 71.1 cm) single-print calendar with the months either printed on it or attached to it in a pad. When Elvgren's sultry blonde nude was delivered to the company's headquarters, it was given the title Golden Beauty and then was inventoried before being sent to Ward's office. To everyone's surprise, the painting then vanished. It is published for the first time here. The story behind the disappearance is as follows: after keeping the painting in his home for a number of years, Ward gave it to Red Rudinski, chief of Brown and Bigelow's maintenance department and a longstanding friend. The author of a book about safecracking techniques, Rudinski eventually came to owe a very big favor to a St. Paul real-estate magnate, and gave the painting to him for Christmas. For the next thirty years, the painting remained in the back office of the real-estate firm in downtown St. Paul, where it became something of a legend. Finally, it was acquired by an art collector in 1990 for a private collection.
Also in 1955, Elvgren attained a measure of pop cultural status when twelve of his best Brown and Bigelow pin-ups were reproduced on a revolving lampshade. The shade hung on a spindle so that it turned as the heat escaped through vents located on top of the shade. Manufactured by the Econolite Corporation, the unit was known as a motion or heat lamp. It was made from celluloid, and the shade was extremely fragile and highly susceptible to burning from the heat of the lightbulb.
In 1954, one of Elvgren's favorite illustrators, Harold Anderson (1894-1973), was asked to do a calendar painting of the Coppertone Billboard Girl. Elvgren's friend Joyce Ballantyne had painted the original advertising twenty-four-sheet billboard subject Don't Be a Pale-face, which eventually became a popular icon. Depicting a small dog pulling down a little girl's bathing suit, the painting helped to establish Ballantyne's reputation as a mainstream advertising illustrator, while making Coppertone one of the best-known products in the world. (Elvgren had first met Joyce Ballantyne at the American Academy of Art in Chicago, when he was teaching there. She was one of his students, but she soon became both his friend and his artistic peer.) Anderson's painting for the calendar commission was executed in a thick, rich, creamy Sundblom-Elvgren style: it won Elvgren's enthusiastic approval upon completion and was a runaway success upon its publication.
THE MIDDLE YEARS
In 1956, Elvgren finally convinced his family to make the big move down to Florida. This idea had been on his mind for almost four years, and the time seemed just right for a change of lifestyle and environment. Elvgren had many friends waiting for him in Florida. Joyce Ballantyne had been there for some time, as had such old friends as Arthur Sarnoff, Bill Doyle, and Elmore Brown. Especially gratifying to Gil was that two of his and Janet's closest friends, Al Buell and Thornton Utz, lived there with their families. So, from the day of their arrival, they were in a sense actually more at home than they had been up North. In addition, the Illinois weather had not been conducive, for much of the year, for visiting and socializing, while in Florida just the opposite was true. Elvgren soon found that he liked everything about living in his new adopted state.
The Elvgrens found an ideal house on Siesta Key, and Gil built a fabulous split-level studio there. For the first four years, he had a studio apprentice named Bobby Toombs, who went on to become a recognized artist in his own right. In a telephone conversation I had with Toombs in 1980, he told me what a terrific teacher Elvgren had been. He said that Elvgren not only taught him the handling of paints and various shortcuts that would help when working to deadlines but also showed him how to approach a given assignment in a properly thoughtful manner (a philosophy that reflected the teachings of Howard Pyle and Harvey Dunn). Toombs said, "Naturally the color values were a major part of the learning process, but with Gil Elvgren by your side, you felt as if you could do anything. He would pick up a brush and make it dance all over the canvas. It was like magic watching him paint, back in those good old days."
Once he was settled in Florida, Elvgren painted a great many portraits, but not for the reason that most semi-retired illustrators had done them earlier. With no aspirations to "fine" art, Elvgren simply enjoyed the people he met in his new community in Siesta Key. Many of his models were famous or went on to become so after posing for him. Myrna Loy, Arlene Dahl, Donna Reed, Barbara Hale, and Kim Novak were just a few of Gil's models. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was a great career boost for an aspiring actress or starlet to have her likeness reproduced and published on a million Elvgren calendars. In fact, it became a weekly train ride for many Hollywood starlets between Los Angeles and St. Paul (home of Brown and Bigelow and birthplace of Gil Elvgren) just to present themselves for consideration as models for Elvgren or one of the other big names.
Although most artists do preliminary drawings or sketches of a subject before tackling an oil, Elvgren did not normally do so. He did however, sometimes ask his studio apprentice to do such drawings if the latter was so inclined. On the occasions when Elvgren decided to do something special in a pin-up job, he would often do a study himself. Generally these were fairly small, measuring an average of 20" x 16" (50.8 x 40.6 cm). Once he did a fully finished preliminary drawing for the pin-up entitled Bear Facts (or Bearback Rider), one of his most famous Brown and Bigelow images. The drawing was almost the size of his oils at 28" x 22" (71.1 x 55.9 cm) just slightly smaller than the 30" x 24" (76.2 x 61 cm) of the finished oil paintings. This sensational study was inscribed and given as a gift to "Toni." Its lower left corner reads, "To Toni Who could have been my most favorite model! ëHi Neighbor!' Gil Elvgren." Toni's identity is not known, but she may well have modeled for Elvgren, and specifically for some of his Schlitz advertising paintings, since that company's ad slogan was "Hi Neighbor!" It is also possible, but unlikely, that Toni was a next-door neighbor.
In choosing his models, Elvgren did not limit himself to the starlets and actresses mentioned earlier. In the 1940s, he was especially fond of Dayl Rodney and Pat Varnum, both in their late teens. From the mid-1950s, after the move to Florida, the model Myrna Hansen (who in 1954 became Miss USA) and his fifteen-year-old neighbor, Janet Rae, posed for him. In the 1960s, Rusty Allen and Marjorie Shuttleworth were favorites.
Elvgren was always searching for new themes and situations that could be worked out in his canvases. Although his fellow pin-up artists in Florida would often come up with suggestions, it was his family that he relied on most. Ever since the Chicago days, Gil had been in the habit of discussing ideas with his wife and children at dinnertime. The opportunity for all of them to kick ideas back and forth made for an entertaining way of sharing the night's meal.
Besides a special account for Napa Auto Parts at Brown and Bigelow every year, Elvgren was also asked to do one pin-up a year for both Deitzler and Sylvania. For the first two accounts, he had to submit an almost full-size (30" x 22" [76.2 x 55.9 cm]) color preliminary painting for Sylvania, a pencil study was required. Elvgren shared the Sylvania assignment with Bill Medcalf, the Detzler project with Mayo Olmstead. In an interview in 1990, Olmstead recalled meeting Elvgren in the early 1950s when Mayo was doing his first Brown and Bigelow assignments. He had been a fan of Elvgren's for years, and the idea of meeting and working with him at Brown and Bigelow had made Olmstead understandably nervous. According to Mayo:
Gil Elvgren was the nicest guy you'd ever want to meet. He couldn't do enough to help a fellow artist out. When I first went to Brown and Bigelow around 1950, Elvgren was already the star of the operation. Everyone respected his talent and ability, which was in a class by itself. I remember ever so vividly the way Gil helped me. My first assignment was to paint a Western cowgirl pin-up subject for a "hanger" calendar. I wasn't even sure how big my original should be, but Gil was right there helping me, suggesting I use the same size canvas as he used, 30" x 24" [76.2 x 61 cm], and I did, although I did my painting as a horizontal image because it was going to be reproduced larger than normal due to the enormous size of the "hangers." If it hadn't been for Gil Elvgren helping me and supporting me at Brown and Bigelow through that first job, you know, the cowgirl piece, and then through my next few assignments, I don't think I would have ever made it! He was a real "prized" individual, you know, like a one-of-a-kind original-gem human being! I have been grateful to Gil for all of his help, his friendship, and his artistic guidance ever since the day I first met him.
The Napa pin-ups that Elvgren did for Brown and Bigelow had to be a bit more conservative than usual. To circumvent problems, Elvgren always submitted a fully finished preliminary study, executed in oil on illustration board, to the company, which would then present it to the Napa executives for approval. Only then would he paint the finished oil. In one of these studies, the fish the woman has reeled in lies between her parted legs. After reviewing the study, the Napa executives asked Brown and Bigelow's art director, Buzz Peck, to ask Elvgren to move the fish to one side, and this is how it appears in the final version.
Haddon Sundblom's influence on Elvgren remained perceptible even at the height of his career. In turn, Sundblom's own paintings bore traces of various other artists' work Howard Pyle, Harvey Dunn, John Singer Sargent, Anders Zorn, Robert Henri, J. C. Leyendecker and Pruett Carter but the prime influence was that of Sorolla. Sorolla's sunlit glow pervades Sundblom's work, and was passed on by him to Gil Elvgren and his circle.
This "circle" was a group of artists with whom Elvgren had studied or whom he had taught in Chicago. It contained many who became close friends. What they had in common was, that they had all studied and worked under the watchful eye of "Sunny," as they affectionately called Sundblom. Among them were Harry Anderson, Joyce Ballantyne, Al Buell, Matt Clark, Earl Gross, Ed Henry, Charles Kingham, Al Kortner, Al Moore, Walt Richards, James Schucker, Euclid Shook, Bob Skemp, Thornton Utz, Coby Whitmore and Jack Whitrup.
In Siesta Key, Elvgren met the famous writer John D. MacDonald, whom Drake Elvgren remembers as living directly across the water from his family. The men became great friends, spending hours playing chess and often attending the many parties in their community. Elvgren did not enjoy being in the limelight, and would hide his shyness in social gatherings by sitting at any available piano and playing anything to avoid making small talk. Occasionally, Elvgren and MacDonald were joined by the artist's other famous author buddy, MacKinlay Cantor.
The Elvgrens also continued to socialize regularly with the Buells and Utzes. Al Buell had worked for Brown and Bigelow for almost twenty-five years, starting like Elvgren by painting pin-ups, but eventually becoming responsible for the successful Artist Sketch Pad, a twelve-month calendar. Utz mainly painted covers for The Saturday Evening Post and had various national advertising accounts, but like Elvgren and Buell, he enjoyed painting a beautiful woman whenever the opportunity presented itself. One of the works he executed in Florida is a painterly rendering of a pin-up by the seashore that captured perfectly the spirit of the time.
Gil Elvgren lived life to the fullest. As an avid outdoorsman, he enjoyed hunting, fishing, trolling for pike in northern Minnesota and deep-sea fishing in Florida. Although he didn't care much for swimming in the ocean, he could regularly be found taking dips in his pool and relaxing at the pool side. He also loved to race cars with his two sons. He owned two racing cars, and every year he would take his family to Sebring, Florida, to watch the twelve-hour Grand Prix of Endurance.
Another activity he enjoyed with his sons involved his lifelong passion for collecting fine vintage weapons, especially pistols and rifles. He had been introduced to guns and weaponry at the age of four, when at a war bond rally in 1918 his father had hoisted him onto his shoulders so that Gil could see a display of guns in a store window. At ten, he received his first gun as a birthday gift from his Dad. After that, he began collecting them and eventually became a sharpshooter, winning numerous competitions throughout his lifetime. When he moved to Florida from Illinois in 1956, he had more than one hundred valuable examples of firearms, which he kept in three glass-enclosed wall cases. Elvgren was a member of the Sarasota Gun Club and also the Sarasota Rifle and Pistol Association. He taught on firearms courses for the Chicago Police Department, the Air Patrol, the Civil Defense and the Coast Guard. Elvgren even built a fifty-foot shooting range in the basement of his house in Winnetka.
Over the years, Elvgren had probably a dozen or so helpers in the studio, most of whom were talented artists who aspired to achieve greatness by developing their own talents with the instruction and advice of the artist they admired the most. Bobby Toombs, for example, took over Elvgren's Brown and Bigelow Napa account once Gil decided he had had enough of deadlines. There were also numerous students Elvgren had taught back in Chicago who saw their careers take off after their time under the master's guidance. Harry Ekman, who had studied with Elvgren in 1953 in Chicago, eventually launched his own successful career in the pin-up and glamour-art field.
When he wasn't painting pin-ups in Florida, Elvgren was busy working on his magazine illustration commissions, although he was always turning down manuscripts simply because he didn't have the time to do the work. The art directors at the magazines he worked for (McCall's, Cosmopolitan, Redbook, Woman's Home Companion and Saturday Evening Post) regularly agreed to wait as long as a year to be able to book a job with Elvgren.
In 1963 Elvgren was honored with the publication of a unique deck of playing cards entitled American Beauties (or sometimes Top Hat). Licenced by Brown and Bigelow, this deck was the first ever to contain reproductions of fifty-three different Elvgren pin-up images, as compared to previous decks which illustrated merely one Elvgren Girl. Elvgren was the only Brown and Bigelow artist ever to be so honored; the only other pin-up artist to have a fifty-three-image deck produced was Alberto Vargas. The Elvgren deck far surpassed the Vargas deck in every respect, and it proved a huge success. Elvgren's pictures are narrative, entertaining and lively, whereas Vargas's lacked backgrounds, situations and any substantial life.
In the midst of all this great success, a terrible sadness engulfed the Elvgren home in 1966 as Janet died of cancer. After her death, Elvgren immersed himself even more in his work. Throughout the 1960s his popularity remained undiminished, both at Brown and Bigelow and with the American public. He had reached the point in his career, after thirty years of painting, when he was relaxed enough not to worry about anything except creating the best possible image for any work. The result was that his 1960s pin-ups were the best conceived, best painted, and best-looking works he ever did. Refreshing and magnetic, these Elvgren Girls captured the viewer's attention with their sex appeal. They were red-blooded All-American glamour girls, and their popular success had the sales force of Brown and Bigelow in seventh heaven. Every business in America seemed to be clamoring for Elvgren Girls on the Brown and Bigelow calendars they gave to their Christmas customers. It was the best time in Elvgren's career, marred only by his sorrow over the death of his wife. As time went on, he eventually began to spend time with Marjorie Shuttleworth, one of his models in Sarasota.
Charlie Ward had a cabin cruiser that he often used to entertain Brown and Bigelow's clients during the summer months in St. Paul. Elvgren had been on the boat many times, and when Ward needed a painting of the craft, it was Elvgren who obliged. (Later, in Sarasota, a Mr. Regal asked Elvgren to do a similar painting of his almost identical vessel.) Elvgren's nautical subjects turned out to be as superb as everything else he painted.
Gil Elvgren's ability to capture the spirit and sensuality of American feminine beauty was unsurpassed. His pin-ups were pictures of real girls in real, everyday situations. Sometimes they were a bit exaggerated, but they always worked. Painting with thirty-two colors on his palette, he mostly used canvas measuring 30" x 24" (76.2 x 61 cm) placed on a large wooden easel. While painting, Elvgren usually sat in a chair on wheels, so he could move about and look at the work in progress from every angle. A high mirror on the wall behind him enabled him to get an overall view of the painting over his shoulder. During the years in Winnetka and for several years after they had moved to Florida, young Drake Elvgren prepared his father's painting materials each day.
When Elvgren was once asked what feature of a model most interested 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." The model was the all-important factor in making a painting strong. He preferred young models (15 to 20 years old) just starting their careers, because at that point they have a freshness and spontaneity that are often lost after they gain experience and poise. He valued models who were enthusiastic and interested in the project, and said that they were very hard to find. When asked about his techniques, he explained the distinctive "touches" he added to every painting how he built up the bust, lengthened the legs, pinched in the waist, gave the body warmer and more attractive curves, worked over the facial features and expression, added just a little more of a tip and tilt to the nose, made the mouth fuller and more sensuous and the eyes a bit larger. He ended by saying that he liked to create the feeling that, underneath all the surface charms, there was a delicious warmth of mischief behind the model's eyes
Elvgren always planned each painting carefully. Beginning with an idea, he would develop the visual situation and then select the appropriate model for that specific setting. Next he would decide on the wardrobe, the background for his studio set, the props and the lighting. Even the model's hairstyle was a significant factor: it could take up to two years for a painting to be published, the girl's hair had to be done in a style that would not date easily. Finally, Elvgren photographed the scene with a 2 1/4 Rollei, after which he could begin to paint.
The distinguishing mark of Elvgren's pin-ups compared with those of his contemporaries is that the Elvgren Girls looked like real people. At any moment, the girl might step out of the painting and say good morning or good night or offer the viewer a cup of coffee, a drink, or an invitation to some not-so-innocent fun. Elvgren Girls had personality and zest; they were lively, friendly beauties brimming with enthusiasm. They were sweet-faced, but also generously endowed by nature. They could easily kindle a twinkle in anyone's eye and often had one in their own. For more than thirty years, from the 1940s to the 1960s, they epitomized the All American Girl.
In the early days of Elvgren's career, the Girls were called "goose-pimpling streamliners" and "fancy dancy armfuls." They danced their way out of the Depression and into World War II, then accompanied America's soldiers into the Korean War. And always, in wartime, they gave soldiers spirit and hope and memories of their girls back home. The American girls Elvgren painted had box-office appeal. Armed with a charming, friendly smile, they captured the affections and inspired the dreams of many men and women during the Golden Age of the American pin-up.
THE LAST YEARS The Mature Years?
During his career at Brown and Bigelow, Gil Elvgren had two main signatures, which differed in size but not style. His early signature (1945-57) was about half the width and height of his later signature (1958-75), which was much bolder and more prominent. The larger signature clearly relates to his growing reputation. By 1958, Elvgren had become a living legend among illustrators. Although Vargas and Petty had both been very popular, their appeal was limited to a specific public. Elvgren on the other hand was applauded by both the public and his peers a distinction that neither Vargas nor Petty enjoyed. Hundreds of illustrators longed to be able to paint girls as Elvgren did. His ability and technique were admired and respected throughout the commercial-art industry.
Elvgren never participated in the lucrative market for paperback-novel cover art, which exploded during the 1950s and 1960s. However, his tear sheet file (which the author acquired from the artist D. H. Rust many years after Elvgren's death) indicated that he remained abreast of the genre, and that his favorite artists were James Avati (1912- ) and James Bama (1926- ). Avati painted extremely sensual subjects while Bama enjoyed tremendous success with Photorealistic renderings of subjects with an up-to-date but slightly fantastic character. These two were leaders in the paperback field. Jerry Balcourt, who managed the careers of Bama and Ron Lesser among others, told me in an interview that the leading paperback artists often discussed Elvgren's art when they met in New York at publishing functions. Elvgren was thus acknowledged not only in his own field but also by artists working in related fields.
As a result of this admiration, and because his own skills had developed to such an extent, by 1958 Elvgren felt extremely comfortable with both his talent and his success. Painting each assignment with increasing ease and confidence, he created his greatest and most sophisticated pin-ups in the last stage of his career. As the images in this book reveal, Elvgren's early work is much tighter than his later paintings, which are structurally more relaxed and less academic (or so he made it appear). In reality, the masterly style of the later paintings recalls in some respects the manner of John Singer Sargent. He no longer encountered problems with the design or composition or lighting. He had essentially attained total mastery of his craft, both in his conceptual approach to each assignment and in his painting technique.
Gil Elvgren a man who had spent much of his life enriching the lives of others succumbed to cancer on February 29, 1980, at the age of sixty-five. In his studio, on Featherbed Lane in Siesta Key, Drake found his father's last Brown and Bigelow pin-up an unfinished and yet still brilliant painting, reproduced and published here for the first time. Elvgren the man has been missed for almost two decades, but his art and legacy live on. Celebrating and enjoying what he created will remain the best compliment and greatest honor we can now bestow on them. And, without question, art historians of the twenty-first century will recognize Gil Elvgren as a major and important contributor to twentieth-century American art.