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and The Art of the Pin-up

Origins of Cheesecake

pin-up n.
  1. a. A picture, especially of a sexually attractive person, that is displayed on a wall.
    b. A person considered a suitable model for such a picture.
  2. Something intended to be affixed to a wall.
cheese-cake n.
  1. A cake made of sweetened cottage cheese or cream cheese, eggs, milk, sugar, and flavorings.
  2. Informal. Photographs of minimally attired women.

Most modern pin-up art can be traced back to the "Gay 90's". As the nineteenth century came to a close the strict public morality of the Victorian era began to weaken and posters, calendars and magazines featuring attractive women all became quite popular.

The man who is generally credited with inventing the poster was the Parisian artist, printer and designer Jules Cheret. Cheret perfected the three stone lithographic process and realized that it could be a powerful advertising tool. Not only that, but he also understood the power of an image of an attractive woman. Cheret set the example for advertisers who followed him. Regardless of whether he was publicizing a music hall, skating rink, lamp fuel or cigarette papers, the vast majority of his posters prominently feature beautiful women. His customers included the Palais de Glace on the Champs Elysées, the Folies Bergeres, and Job cigarette papers.

Cheret's style was well suited to the three stone lithographic technique. Where black and white lithographs leant themselves to the fine line work that we associate with etchings, mass produced color lithographs made by lining up the three different impressions was better suited to broad swaths of color. Being confined to 3 stones also meant either using the three primary colors and no true black (much like a three color ink jet printer a century later) or black and two colors. Cheret used both approaches, but whether he used a dark blue or black as his third ink, the central women of his work were almost always dressed in bold red, yellow and orange, witness the Folies Bergeres and Job posters here.

By the 1880's posters were so prevalent in Paris that the government began to regulate where they could be displayed and to tax them. They soon became standardized and the advertising business boomed. By the 1890's many of the finest and most renowned artists in Paris were doing posters. Perhaps the most famous of these is Henri Toulouse-Latrec. Toulouse-Latrec was both a well respected fine artist and a highly valued illustrator. In the 1890s he embraced the poster and revelled in the fact that his art was plastered all over Paris. His first poster was for the Moulin Rouge music hall.

In 1894 the poster gave birth to a school of art that would dominate art and illustration for two decades. Czechoslovakian born Alphonse Mucha was asked to produce a poster of actress sensation Sarah Bernhardt. Building on earlier art movements such as the Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts and Crafts movement, and adding to it the ornate decorative style of Byzantium and the east, Mucha created Art Nouveau. Again, the style was well suited to poster work. Mucha outlined his main figures with bold line work that could withstand small amounts of misalignment.

The original Bernhardt poster is the rightmost supporter at the top of this page. A later poster serves as the left hand supporter. The format used in both, a long thin poster dominated by a single female figure, is one that he would use repeatedly, and is still used in pin-ups today. In the 1960's and 70's there was something of a Mucha revival. Posters were once again becoming popular in the art world and as decorations for the walls of a youth culture that prominently featured pot-smoking and psychedelia. It was almost inevitable that posters of Mucha's elegant Art Nouveau work for Job cigarette papers become craze.

September Morn The most famous early calendar pin-up was "September Morn", painted in 1912 by Paul Chabas. The picture portrays a pretty young lady bathing in a lake at sunrise. Although it is not overtly sexual, and in fact it's charm lies in the modest innocence of the bather, it ran afoul of the infamous Anthony Comstock when it was published in the US in 1913. As a result of the controversy that surrounded it, it became an extremely popular print for gracing calendars. It's worth pointing out that it is generally believed that the owner of the gallery in whose window Comstock saw "September Morn" was the person who anonymously tipped Comstock off to the presence of the picture and that he did so specifically as a publicity stunt, one that was in end extremely successful.

The Gibson Girl It's hard to clearly define the origin of the magazine pin-up. Attractive young ladies have almost always been used to illustrate the printed story. When, exactly do they cease to be illustrations and become pin-ups valued independently from the story?

The Gibson Girl, while not generally regarded a pin-up, did foreshadow many of the characteristics of the genre. While Gibson drew his models fully clothed, their costume was in its day provocative and ground breaking. They wore revealing bathing suits or shirtwaists that were modeled after masculine garments. The Gibson Girl was usually shown relaxing or engaged in athletic activity. When not alone, she was often part of a Gibson couple, paired with an athletically good-looking young man in flirtation or courtship. She was an attractive athletic young woman, with a modern sense of style that would have been shocking in its immodesty only a few years before.

Raphael Kirchner

Another candidate for the origin of the magazine pin-up is to be found back in Paris, a city long associated both with art, fashion, the new and the risque. Given how central Paris had been to the birth of modern advertising it's only natural that magazines extolling the glamour of Paris would arise and help give birth to the pin-up. Raphael Kirchner

Perhaps the grandfather of magazine pin-up art is Raphael Kirchner whose work appeared in La Vie Parisienne in the first couple of decades of the century. His work, like much that came after it featured beautiful, often naked or provocatively clad women, alone, in pairs or with a man, and usually with a bit of whimsy or humor.

The picture to the near left is part of a series that ran in the magazine during the 20's. The clown head in the picture was the hallmark of the series. The picture to the far left shows the playfulness and eroticism of Kirchner's work. Not surprisingly, given that he is working for a magazine devoted to Parisian life in the 20's, there is an air of lesbianism to this and others of his pictures from that era.

His style is similar to that of another young artist of the time who did poster and sheet music covers for the Ziegfeld Follies and whose work in pin-up art will have a profound effect for the remainder of the century: Alberto Vargas. The colors used by both are bright and the brushwork begins to foreshadow the slick airbrush work of later decades, but it still has quite a way to go before reaching the realism and super-realism of more modern work.

The two Vargas pictures here are from the Ziegfeld days. The rightmost is one of several that are fairly similar to the Kirchners of the same period. Just as Kirchner's work feature clown faces, these feature dolls and puppets. There's also a doll present in the picture to the near right, though this one is closer to Vargas's modern work than some of the others of the day.

In the next chapter we will continue to look at these two artists along with George Petty and several of the other classic pin-up artists.


The text of this page, and the page as a whole is © Copyright 1996-2004 Jim Burrows.
All Rights Reserved.

The pictures used to illustrate the styles and artists reviewed here are all copyrighted by their respective creators (or their estates) or publishers and are used without explicit permission. I've done what I can to keep that use within the definitions of fair use.