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. Gil Elvgren 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.
Gil Elvgren – Great American Pin-Up Artist
Elvgren stood out not just for his painting and advertising graphics. Gil Elvgren 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” successors McClelland Barclay, Haddon H. Sundblom, Andrew Loomis, Charles E. Chambers and Pruett Carter Chad 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.