Passion For Art

>>>Alberto Vargas

From the time Esquire first introduced America to the Varga Girl, in 1940, the name Vargas has been synonymous with pin-up and glamour art. In fact, the word “vargas” has actually been applied to almost every kind of pin-up subject – a fitting tribute to the most famous and prolific glamour artist of all time. Born February 9, 1896, in Peru, Alberto Vargas was the son of a renowned photographer, Max Vargas, who had taught him how to use an airbrush by the time he was thirteen. In 1 911, while accompanying Max on a trip to Paris, Alberto came upon the famous magazine La Vie Parisienne, and its sensuous front covers by Raphael Kirchner made a lasting impression on him. He studied in Zurich and Geneva before leaving Europe because of the war and arriving on Ellis Island in October 1916.

Vargas’ first encounter with America happened about noon at Broadway and Fourteenth Street, when he was suddenly surrounded by a lunchtime crowd of smartly dressed office workers. Mesmerized by their grace, sophistication, and beauty the young artist decided he would spend his life glorifying the American Girl. Vargas’ first job was drawing fashion illustrations (mostly in watercolour and pen and ink) for the Adelson Hat Company and Butterick Patterns. Eventually turning to freelance commercial illustration, he was painting in a store window in May 1919 when he was asked by a representative of the Ziegfeld Follies to show his work the next day to Mr Ziegfeld.

Within twenty-four hours, Vargas found himself commissioned to paint twelve watercolour portraits of the leading stars of the 1919 Ziegfeld Follies for the lobby of the New Amsterdam Theatre. Yet, although he was in the company of the most beautiful girls in the world, he knew there was only one woman for him: Anna Mae Clift, a showgirl with the rival Greenwich Village Follies. For the next twelve years, Vargas painted all the Ziegfeld stars, including names such as Billy Burke, Nita Naldi, Marilyn Miller, Paulette Goddard, Ruth Etting, Eddie Cantor, and W C. Fields. He soon developed a friendship with Ziegfeld, who let the young artist call him “Ziggy”, a name used only by the impresario’s closest friends.

A legal dispute with Esquire over the use of the name “Varga” resulted in a judgment against Vargas and he struggled financially until the 1960s when Playboy magazine began to use his work as “Vargas Girls.” His career flourished and he had major exhibitions of his work all over the world. The death of his wife Anna Mae in 1974 left him devastated and he stopped painting. The publication of his autobiography in 1978 renewed interest in his work and brought him partially out of his self-imposed retirement to do a few works, such as album covers for Bernadette Peters and the Cars. He died of a stroke on December 30, 1982, at the age of 86.

Many of Vargas’s works from his period with Esquire are now held by the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas, which was given those works in 1980 along with a large body of other art from the magazine. At the December 2003 Christies auction of Playboy archives, the 1967 Vargas painting “Trick or Treat” sold for $71,600, a record for his works.

His work was typically a combination of watercolor and airbrush. His mastery of the airbrush is acknowledged by the fact that the highest achievement in the community of airbrush artistry is the Vargas Award, awarded annually by Airbrush Action Magazine. His images would often portray elegantly dressed, semi-nude to nude women of idealized proportions. Vargas’ artistic trait would be slender fingers and toes, with nails often painted red.

Vargas is widely regarded as one of the finest artists in his genre. He also served as a judge for the Miss Universe beauty contest in 1956-58. Notable women painted by Vargas include Olive Thomas, Billie Burke, Nita Naldi, Marilyn Miller, Paulette Goddard and Ruth Etting.

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