Born in 1914 in St. Paul, Minnesota, Gil Elvgren was a master painter and one of America’s first and best loved pin-up artists. He is possibly the foremost painter of sensuality through using models who possess a ‘girl-next-door’ quality. His heroines are often caught in humorous situations that cause their skirts to rise and our eyes to follow. His paintings are an excellent proof of the phrase, “A picture is worth one thousand words.”
Elvgren commenced studies at the Minneapolis Art Institute, and later studied (and even taught) at the Chicago Academy of Art. His parents first encouraged him to study architecture, but shortly after starting his studies he decided to pursue art instead. Some of Gil’s fellow students were Al Buell, Andrew Loomis, Coby Whitmore, Robert Skemp and Ben Stahl. Many of his academy friends would later also work for Coca Cola.
Elvgren graduated from the Academy during the depression at the age of twenty-two. Elvgren first job was one for one of the major US advertising agencies, Stevens and Gross. One of their most exciting clients was Coca-Cola. Elvgren contributed to several Coca-Cola ads. No artist working for Coke could sign his work, but Elvgren’s hand & style remain very recognizable.
Elvgren’s work also mirrors the sheer, nostalgic revery that the breathtaking illustrations of Haddon Sundblom’s “Coca-Cola” Santa’s evoke. No wonder, as Elvgren quickly became a protégé of the legendary Sundblom. The old master taught his star pupil the lush brush stroke technique that makes Elvgren’s girls such glowing wonders.
Elvgren conveys the ideal of real life, fun, beauty and sensuality in every of his paintings. Never sexual, always sensual, their style is the epitome of the age of elegance in which he lived.
He spent extreme amounts of time posing the models for the pre-painting photograph. Elvgren always looked for models with vitality and personality, and chose young girls who were new to the modeling business. He felt the ideal pin-up was a 15 year old face on a 20 year old body. In some cases, he combined the body of one girl and the face of another to achieve the desired result.
In 1937, Gil began painting calendar pin-ups for Louis Dow, one of America’s leading publishing companies. These artworks are easily recognizable because they are signed with a printed version of Elvgren’s name, as opposed to his later cursive signature. Dow paintings were often published first in one format, then painted over with different clothes and situations.
Around 1944, Gil was approached by Brown and Bigelow, a firm that still dominates the field in producing calendars and advertising specialties. They offered him $1000 per pin-up, which was substantially more than Dow was paying him. Elvgren signed on with B&B. Gil’s Brown and Bigelow images all contain his cursive signature. Elvgren painted twenty calendar girls each year, ranging from the girl next door letting her dog out, to brave rodeo heroines & water skiing action girls.
Besides a successful career in advertising, Gil Elvgren also did a lot of magazine illustrations. His pretty girls also appeared on many billboards, the same image sometimes modified a bit to sell more than one type of product.
According to Elvgren author & art collector Louis Meisel: “Between the mid-1930s and early 70s, Elvgren produced over 500 paintings of beautiful girls and women. As the decades progressed, the paintings just kept getting better and better. Elvgren continually surpassed himself, always improving in composition, ideas, color and technique.”
The beautiful Elvgren girls are never portrayed as a femme fatale. They are stylized ideals in which the realities and essentials of female form and expression are heightened and exalted artistically. Their charms are revealed in that fleeting instant when she’s been caught unaware in what might be a surprising, sometimes even embarrassing situation. She is intruded upon as she takes a bath. Her skirts get caught in elevator doors, hung up on faucets, and entangled with dog leashes. The elements conspire in divesting her of her clothing. The Elvgren girls, pictured in a variety of fun and clever contexts, are life-affirmative art of the highest order.
Elvgren died in 1980, at the age of 66. Lately, there’s a resurgent interest in his work and prints of his pictures are still bestsellers. Today, Elvgren is recognized as one of the top image makers & glamour artists of the 20th century.