Gil Elvgren Biography
THE ART AND LIFE OF GIL ELVGREN
Charles G. Martignette
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” successorsCMcClelland 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 protégé 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: