Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Defining Beauty: Gil Elvgren

America's pre-eminent pin-up artist, Gil Elvgren, had a simple (though, admittedly, a bit lecherous sounding) criteria for creating his beautiful calendar girls: each had to have a "fifteen-year-old face on a twenty-year-old body."¹ During a career that spanned nearly forty years, Elvgren never lost sight of what appealed to the American male, and though his work can look a bit dated because of clothing and hairstyles, the women are nonetheless always attractive. Here was an artist who truly understood the proportions of beauty.

Elvgren felt that his models were the key to the strength of his paintings, and he had an exquisite eye in choosing the correct women for his projects. Many of his models, like Myrna Hansen, Myrna Loy, Donna Reed, Arlene Dahl, Barbara Hale, and Kim Novak, went on to have successful film careers after posing for the artist. These actresses, just beginning their careers, would travel to the offices of the nation's most successful calendar company, Brown & Bigelow, to be immortalized by the pin-up artists in their employ, and among those, Elvgren knew best how to tap into the young women's "freshness and spontaneity."²

He chose models with a 'high forehead, long neck, eyes that were set wide apart, small ears, pert nose, great hair, full but not overblown breasts, nice legs and hands, a pinched-in waist and natural grace and poise."³ To these inherent features, Elvgren would add embellishments by building up the bust, lengthening the legs, reducing the waist more, adding more tip and tilt to the nose, making the mouth fuller and more sensuous, enlarging the eyes, and making the curves of the body warmer and more attractive.⁴ Most of all, however, his models had to be enthusiastic and interested, and have highly mobile facial features, capable of a wide range of expression.⁵

An avid photographer, Gil Elvgren shot his own model set-ups, and to artists, the picture archive from Elvgren's career may be more helpful in understanding how he portrayed comeliness than are his words. There are several sources online where you can see Elvgren's photos, and it is worth the effort to compare his finished works with the original reference. It is a great way to examine what Elvgren added, and what he simplified, in order to make his famous beauties.


Taschen Publishing has a reasonably priced book out on Elvgren called Gil Elvgren: The Complete Pin-Ups, written by Charles G. Martignette and Louis K. Meisel. It contains 98% of the artist's more than 500 pin-up and glamour paintings created between the mid-1930s and 1972. Some images are, unfortunately, copies of copies, but more than 200 of the pictures were shot directly from Elvgren's original paintings.


Heritage Auction Galleries has handled the sale of several of Elvgren's paintings, including those which were in the possession of Charles Martignette. If you do a search in their archives and look through their upcoming sales, you will be able to find high resolution scans of the Elvgren pin-ups Heritage has handled.


Two great online sources for information on Gil Elvgren are Elvgren Pinup, and Gil Elvgren. The latter site, operated by Louis K. Meisel, contains what appears to be the complete Elvgren biography from the Taschen book.


You can purchase copies of Gil Elvgren's BW reference photos on ebay from The Kat House and from MOP Pin-Up. This is a great opportunity to work from the same source as Elvgren and compare your interpretation to his.


After moving to Florida, one of Elvgren's favorite models was the very animated Janet Rae. Her son, Stuart, has compiled photographs of Janet taken by Elvgren along with images of the finished works as a tribute to his mother. Rae's son is contemplating a book about his mother, and has posted the images to a flickr set to gauge the public's response.


Elvgren's friend, Norman Rockwell, also relied heavily upon photo reference for his illustrations. Currently on view at the Norman Rockwell Museum is Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera, which examines the artist's photo reference in comparison to his finished art.



¹ Elvgren Pinup. December 28, 2009.
² Charles G. Martignette and Louis K. Meisel, Gil Elvgren: The Complete Pin-Ups, (Taschen Publishing, Los Angeles, 1999), p. 37.
³ Elvgren Pinup.
⁴ Martignette and Meisel, p. 37.
⁵ Martignette and Meisel, pp. 36-37.


Stapleton Kearns said...

Excellent post, thanks
I love seeing the artist's references. If I subtract the result from the references I get the artist's decisions.

billspaintingmn said...

Gil got the girl.
I love his work, thanks for posting

Christina Hess said...

This is a fabulous post. Thanks so much for taking the time to compile the info!