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Sheer Elegance


and The Art of the Pin-up

Classic 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.
Sheer Elegance

Raphael Kirchner
In the last chapter, I covered the precursors of modern pin-up art, ending with a comparison of Raphael Kirchner with early works of Alberto Vargas, perhaps the most famous 20th century pin-up artist. In the picture to the right we see Kirchner producing a very modern pin-up, very similar to the fully developed Vargas, or the likes of George Petty or Olivia De Berardinis.

The subject -- a naked woman stretched out on a bearskin rug -- is classic pin-up, suggestive and sensual on a number of levels. The contrast of the soft fur and the model's naked skin offers the artist subtle textures to display his artistic talent and evokes a very sensual image to the viewer who can readily imagine the tactile sensation. The bear itself is a powerful, dangerous and masculine symbol, but here is safe and subdued. Still he bares his long sharp teeth, a reminder of his erstwhile danger and power. Finally, there is a bit of implied humor as the picture suggest the pun on the words bearskin and bare skin, both of which are well displayed.

The execution of this particular instance of the bearskin pin-up is also classic in the coyness and innocence of the model. She is naked but lying face down on the fur so that her breasts and front are covered. Her smile is quiet and she seems to be tempting the bear with a bit of food. All-in-all, the humor, sensuality, sexuality, innocence and feminine beauty of this picture add up to classic modern cheesecake pin-up.

Classic Pin-up Collage
Zoë Mozert
Earl Moran Gil Elvgren

The hay day of the pin-up was 30's through the 50's. These were the days of artists like George Petty, Alberto Vargas, Zoë Mozert, Earl Moran and Gil Elvgren.

Petty Girl
"Thanks for the hospitality, Mr. Grover, but I don't mind going home in the rain."
The first issue of Esquire magazine was published in 1933 and contained a cartoon by an artist who would appear regularly in the magazine for a decade: George Petty. Initially his work consisted of painted cartoons of the elderly gentleman that was Esquire's mascot with beautiful women sitting in his lap or escorting him. He was drawn in a very cartoonish manner, but finished in a glossier than life style. She was not as obviously cartoon-like, nor as glossily finished, but was definitely in a sharper style than many of her contemporaries either in pin-up art or on magazine covers. As time passed the squire vanished as did the ladies' clothes, and the glossy airbrush style became more pronounced.

Petty Centerfold
The Petty Girl shown here to the right is from the cartoon period, still fully clothed and complete with a humorous caption. By the end of the 30's she would shed her clothes and become a two page gatefold, precursor of the 3-page Playboy centerfold. In fact, the first 3-page foldout pinup girl was the Petty girl lounging and talking on the phone shown here to the left. She was one of 4 Petty girls in the December 1939 issue of Esquire.

Unfortunately, important as the Petty Girl had been to Esquire's success from the very start, Petty was never very well paid for them. By the 1940's Petty's career was booming and money became a major issue between him and the magazine, and in 1942 Esquire published their last Petty girl.

Hedy Lammarr by Vargas
Hedy Lammarr
This brings us back to Alberto Vargas. As the relationship between Esquire and Petty broke down, they began to publish the Varga girl in the place of the Petty Girl. They dropped the S from his name, supposedly because they thought it made his name sound like a possessive. He later resumed the S when he left Esquire. His work continued the trend to a sharper glossier style, taking it clearly past realistic to the beginnings of a super-realism. The two supporters at the top of this page are "Sheer Elegance", the September 1941 Varga girl from the Esquire calendar.

Zoë Mozert
While Esquire's cheesecake was unabashed pin-ups, other magazines like Life, Time, Look and Cosmopolitan found other reasons to feature cheesecake. In the days before fast high-quality color photography, the only way that magazines could feature color pictures of movie stars and other celebrities was through paintings. Pin-up style pictures like the portrait of Hedy Lamarr by Vargas to the right, and head shots like the one by Zoë Mozert in the collage above appeared in both general readership and movie magazines.

Mozert was born Alice Adelaide Moser, but adopted the name Zoë Mozert because she didn't think her own name sounded like someone famous and because with the Z's and the final T it made such an attractive signature to sign her paintings with. Her training was as an illustrator of the classic Howard Pyle school. She started her career in New York City in 1932 painting movie posters and the covers of movie magazines, and produced more than two covers a week over the next four years. In the 1940's, Mozert signed a contract with Bigelow and Brown and doing calendars and nudes.

Norma Jean by Earl Moran
Earl Moran's career started in the earl 30's when began doing calendar work for both Thomas D. Murphy and Bigelow and Brown. B&B soon signed him to an exclusive contract, and by 1940 he was one of the most famous illustrators alive. He worked mostly in pastels, although later in his career he did some excellent work in oils.

Shortly after the second World War, Moran's wife accused him of adultery with one of his models and divorced him. He moved to Hollywood and soon discovered his most famous model, then known as Norma Jean Dougherty. The two became friends and in the 1946-1950 period she modeled for several of his paintings, one of which is shown to the right.

Gil Elvgren
Gil Elvgren started his career at the Stevens and Gross advertising agency where he worked under and learned from Haddon Sundblom, who is best known for his Coca Cola ads, especially the Santa campaign, which he originated. Other artists who worked under Sundblom included pin-up artists such as Al Buell, Joyce Ballantyne (who created the famous Coppertone ad with the dog pulling down the little girl's pants) and cartoonist, illustrator and glamor artist Andrew Loomis.

Starting in the late 30's, Elvgren began doing girl-next-door calendar pin-ups first for Louis F. Dow, and then for Brown and Bigelow. Elvgren and most of the artists who started out in Sundblom's studio worked in oil using a lush smooth style sometimes called the "Mayonnaise school", that gave his models a rich glowing skin.

"Bareback Rider"
Elvgren can as readily be compared to Norman Rockwell as he can the Esquire pin-up artists. His subjects, whether pin-up girls for his calendar work, or his Coca Cola and other advertising work, always personified the same American dream as Rockwell. His pin-up girls were very much the "Girl next door", well-scrubbed and innocent, whether clothed or nude, very much embodying "good girl art". (See my page on good girl comics for a related topic.)

Coming back around to the theme we started this page off with, the picture to the right is Elvgren's "Bareback Rider", also known as "Bare Facts". In this version of the time-honored theme, Elvgren has made the bear less fierce and given him something of sly grin, his eyes cast slightly upward and to the side. Still, as with Kirchner some 40 years before, the girl is coy, innocent and tempting, and the bear stands in for the viewer.

"Sketching Outdoors" by Earl MacPherson
The last artist we'll touch on in this page is Earl MacPherson, one of whose most famous series was his "Artist's Sketch Pad" calendars. Each page featured a central pin-up girl and a number of rougher sketches, studies of the same subject. After its success he did several more themed calendars.

MacPherson was not only a painter, but like Moran and Evlgren, a skilled photographer and often worked from reference photos that he took of his models. A few of his photos have been published. The pictures to the left show his reference photo as well as the painting (and painting within a painting) that he created from it.

Photographic cheesecake had existed since the very beginning, but it wasn't until the 40's and 50's that it came into its own. The next chapter picks up the story with two photographs that have become iconic.


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.