Vargas, Alberto 1896–1982

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Vargas, Alberto

Alberto Vargas was born to a famous photographer in Arequipa, Peru, in February 1896 and went on to become one of the most famous pin-up artists and painters in the world. He died in Los Angeles in December 1982.

Vargas was trained by his father to use an airbrush, something he would employ to great effect in his pinups. As a young man Vargas traveled to Europe where he studied in Zurich and Geneva and became enamored of French neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres's (1780–1867) paintings in Paris. It would be the women of New York, however, who would attract Vargas by their self-confidence, and he later married one of the women from the Greenwich Village Follies, Anna Mae Clift (m. 1930–d. 1974), who became a model for some of his illustrations.

Vasgas's name is still associated with the "Varga Girl," a pin-up who was born in Esquire magazine, directly following George Petty's (1894–1975) "Petty Girl." The first Varga Girl, copyrighted as such by Esquire, appeared in the October 1940 issue of that magazine. The Varga Girl, followed by the Varga Girl calendar, became legendary during World War II. The U.S. Coast Guard wrote Vargas in 1942, acknowledging the help of the Varga Girl in its recruitment work. She appeared in provocative military uniforms, carrying medals and encouraging the purchase of G.I. bonds, and even cross-dressed as George Washington. Sometimes soldiers made special requests to Vargas to produce mascots for them. Many a pin-up lived on the side of a military tank or airplane. An image from December 1943 made the woman a kind of airplane in flight as a piece of her clothing trailing behind her sports U.S. Air Force insignia. The relationship between Vargas and Esquire came to an end in 1946. In 1960 Vargas began doing paintings for Playboy. Despite the fact that his work was signed Vargas, readers of the highly successful men's magazine still informally labeled his female drawings the Varga Girl.

Critics think that much of the appeal of the Vargas Girls lay in their expressive eyes. When Vargas was under pressure to produce an illustration in a hurry, he would paint a back shot of the model. He painted with the clear sharp lines and demarcations of the nineteenth-century European academic tradition. The anatomically clear and relatively vigorous musculature may have reflected the European classical tradition but almost certainly was influenced as well by the physique of Vargas's wife and his early model, who was a dancer. The proportions of the Varga Girl reflected the preferences of 1940s and 1950s America: ample breasts, narrow waist, full but not fleshy thighs, and long legs. Also in keeping with the strictures of those times, Vargas avoided full frontal nudity, sometimes draping his models in diaphanous materials reminiscent of classical European painting.

After his wife died in 1974, Vargas lost interest in his pin-up paintings, though he at times did record-album covers. He died in Los Angeles in 1982.

see also Pin-Ups.


Gabor, Mark. 1984. The Pin-Up: A Modest History. New York: Bell.

Martignette, Charles G., and Louis K. Meisel. 1991. The Great American Pin-Up. Cologne and New York: Täschen, 1996.

Robotham, Tom. 1991. Varga. New York: Mallard.

                                      Fedwa Malti-Douglas

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Vargas, Alberto 1896–1982

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