A Brief History of the Pin-up
© Kevin Freeman
In order to bring some context to the Mutoscope world, I'll give a sketchy review of "pin-ups" and information on selected pin-up artists. Keep in mind, this is neither exhaustive nor scholarly. For more expert discourse, I invite you to consult with the sources I've cited in my credits page and following each biography. Since the term can encompass other media, see also other entries on photography, pulps, magazines and comics.
The modern antecedents of the pin-up can be traced to the Gibson Girl in America, who made her debut in 1887, and the Art Nouveau posters of Alphonso Mucha and Jules Chéret in Europe. The prototypical pin-up postcard artist of the nineteenth century, Raphael Kirchner, contributed to the establishment of the "pretty girl" format. Also becoming publicly acceptable was such mainstream popular art as 'Psyche at Nature's Mirror' by Paul Thumann, first seen in Munsey's December 1893 Issue. White Rock beverages then adopted it as their trademark and, by 1947, the demure Psyche was attending parties topless! Two popular Glamour icons to follow the Gibson Girl, were those of Howard Chandler Christy and Harrison Fisher.
At the turn of the century, the calendar was the most prominent form of pin-up material, especially the early "glamour girl" formats by Angelo Asti. In 1913 the controversial nude 'September Morn' by Paul Chabas was censored by the New York Society for the Supression of Vice. Still, the image was subsequently printed on literally hundreds of thousands of calendars, in addition to candy boxes, postcards and more. The Art Deco period also made respectable any art featuring Romantic nudity, such as that of Mabel Rollins Harris, Maxfield Parrish and Hy Hintermeister.
By the 1920s, the golden age of illustration was in full flower. The new film industry fueled the public's appetite for magazines devoted to their celluloid heroes. In the 1800s, a glimpse of a woman's bare ankle could be considered scandalous. Compare that with the blatantly sexual girls of the Roaring Twenties by Enoch Bolles, George Quintana and Earle K. Bergey just a generation later! Corporations and advertising agencies were likewise vying for the services of talented artists to create identities the public would respond to. A significant pre-war American advertising icon was the Arrow Shirt man, portrayed brilliantly by J.C. Leyendecker. Although Leyendecker is primarily known for his depictions of men, he had a profound influence upon popular illustrators such as Norman Rockwell and many who followed.
As popular culture devoured its forbidden voyeuristic fantasies in pulp magazines, and later paperback books, another trend had begun to legitimize the pin-up as a serious art form: Higher brow fare offered by such slick periodicals as Esquire (an important predecessor of Playboy), Cosmopolitan, The Saturday Evening Post and others. Art Deco depictions of the female form were considered tasteful enough for inclusion in these magazines. Alberto Vargas makes for a convenient figure as we watch his style evolve from coy to more explicit. The fact that he started at Esquire and ended up at Playboy also makes for a barometer of trends within pin-up.
While Vargas was refining the centerfold concept, a contemporary of his was pursuing an even higher profile venue - that of superstar commercial artist. George Petty had worked for Esquire (Vargas replaced him after a dispute over salary), but the 'Petty Girl' was a fixture from the 1930s until the 1950s. The Petty Girl pitched a dizzying array of products to a national audience. She became so firmly entrenched in the public's consciousness that a movie was actually made about her - a fictitious airbrushed icon.
During World War Two, pin-ups accompanied G.I.s in the form of movie star photos like Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth. Vargas pin-ups were also very much in evidence in the barracks and as nose-art of the Airforce. Additionally, the Louis F. Dow Calendar Company produced special booklets of pin-up art created by their star artist Gillette Elvgren to be mailed overseas. Check out the Collector's Press Military Pin-Up Kits for example.
After the war, Christian Dior introduced his 'new look', war restrictions on luxury items such as nylons were lifted and undergarments finally made the transition to two separate pieces, the bra and the girdle. Society had moved past the androgynous flappers and the economically depressed 1930s to a new age of prosperity. The move towards commercialization was well under way. If a pretty, wholesome girl-next-door could be utilized to sell a product, why not a girl in stockings modestly flashing some skin (But she's always a 'good girl' - Its not her fault that playful puppy pulled her skirt over her head!). If anyone is responsible for the explosion of vibrant beautiful pitchwomen, it is Chicago artist Haddon Sundblom.
Sundblom's lush oil technique influenced a roster of important pin-up artists. The most famous pupil was Gil Elvgren, who worked at Sundblom's Stevens-Gross advertising agency along with such notable artisans as Al Buell, Harry Ekman, Bill Medcalf and Joyce Ballantyne. Their technique of using thick layers of paint to achieve a warmth and glow was dubbed 'the mayonnaise school'. Other descendants of this style of luminous illustration included Donald 'Rusty' Rust, Art Frahm, Peter Driben, Edward D'Ancona, Edward Runci, Vaughan Alden Bass, Al Brulé and Pearl Frush.
Independent of the national accounts for specific products and services, there were other fertile markets for pin-up art. Brown & Bigelow, for example, consider themselves in the 'rememberance advertising' business. They produce office supplies, playing cards and calendars, many of which are designed to be imprinted by small companies and then given away as promotions. They employed some of the best talent to design both generic and industry-specific artwork (See George Petty's Rigid Tools series for example). Although they, as well as other calendar publishers, occasionally produced nude or 'racy' product, they sought not to alienate their conservative or religious customers with such fare.
Brown & Bigelow also supported several styles of pin-up. In addition to the strait-forward realistic oil paintings of Elvgren, 'Baron' von Lind and others, they also utilized pastel artists, such as Rolf Armstrong, Earl Moran, Billy DeVorss and Zoe Mozert and originated the 'Artist's Sketch Pad' genre pioneered by Earl Mac Pherson and used to great success by Ballantyne, T.N. Thompson, Fritz Willis, K.O. Munson, Freeman Elliot, Ted Withers and more.
Another arena that no 'respectable' artist would consider entering was the insatiable need for dramatic and titillating covers for the pulp magazines and paperback books of the 1950's. It should be noted that several artists with direct Mutoscope connections, such as Moran and De Vorss, as well as Bergey and Driben, contributed to this astounding art.
Playboy created a sensation with their centerfold of Marilyn Monroe in 1953. Until that time, it was primarily Esquire who provided opportunities for a generation of pin-up artists, including Ben-Hur Baz, Ernest Chiriaka, Mike Ludlow and J. Frederick Smith. Although Esquire had presented photographic pinups previously, they never contained overt nudity.
An interesting footnote to the Pop Art movement of the 1960's is the work of Mel Ramos, who combined nude pin-ups with recognizable corporate images for a satiric blend of cheesecake and commercialism. Another modern artist of mention is Patrick Nagel, who died tragically early in his promising career. Although Nagel's work has the cool aesthetic of woodblocks and don't invite the viewer into a realistic depiction, the fact that his original paintings, and that of his modern contemporaries, commands incredible prices speaks to the current attitudes towards the subject of pin-up as a modern artform.
The introduction of explicit men's magazines (Penthouse introduced the world to pubic hair in 1970) made such innocent depictions seem quaint and old-fashioned. Photography was a quick and easy means to satisfy the pressures of monthly deadlines. Today's sex symbols seem to be comprised of pre-packaged teen sensations, silicone-enhanced quasi porn stars and anorexic 'supermodels'. Modern pin-up artists such as Olivia de Berardinis, Hajime Sorayama, Carlos Cartagena, Jennifer Janesko, Alain Aslan and John Kacere have turned their vision towards photorealistic fantasy or fetishistic subjects and lack the innocence of their predecessors. (Many also tend to specialize in airbrush, a technique that can leave a cold, hard and artificial look.)
Still there are those, such as Dave Stevens, who have not forgotten how to draw a good girl in a bad situation without showing us every anatomical detail of his subjects. We must thank Dave, not only for creating the Rocketeer character, but for reviving interest in the great photo pin-up gal of the 1950s, Bettie Page. I am also particularly fond of some modern European illustrators such as Milo Manara. (There's also Eric Stanton, who provided us with bad girls in bad situations, but that is the opposite direction of cheesecake!) To draw the line arbitrarily, I have created a page specifically for another interest of mine, comics. Although Stevens, Greg Hildebrandt, Jay Pike, Bill Ward and others have experience in the comic world (Which includes the sub-genres of 'good girl', 'bad girl', superheroine and Anime), their depictions continue to expand my precepts of successful pin-up art and are documented elsewhere.
So, pin-up fans, that's as far as I've gotten. It is not my intention to amass an exhaustive pin-up collection of high-resolution images, although I have posted several hundred images in the Gallery. If a particular artist mentioned here has appealed to you, I invite you to check out the links and credits pages here on MutoWorld and the links at the bottom of each artist's biography for the original reference. There are several great pin-up resources available in print and I have tried to be selective in my offerings on my Amazon page.