Alberto Vargas is remembered as a highly regarded artist who specialized in painting beautiful women. His most familiar and popular work is in the form of pin-up art featuring his "Varga Girls."
Born in Peru in 1896, Vargas learned how to airbrush while working in his father’s photography studio, according to American National Biography Online (ANBO). He got his start working in the United States as a portrait painter for the Ziegfeld Follies in New York. There he learned to capture “a wonderful portrait with style and class.”
Working in Hollywood
He went on to Hollywood to work for the major motion picture studios on set design as well as painting portraits of numerous movie stars of the 1930s. Those included starlets such as the legendary Greta Garbo and Hedy Lamar.
This talented painter eloped with one of his Ziegfeld models, Anna Mae Clift, in 1930. The couple stayed together through both the extremely profitable years of Vargas’ career as well as leaner times. She passed away in 1974, but he continued to work doing freelance jobs after her death. This includes painting the iconic cover art for the Cars album titled "Candy-O," which was released in 1979.
This album art undoubtedly introduced a new generation to his talent and reminded those born prior to the baby boom era of his earlier work. A long-time resident of Woodland, California, Alberto Vargas died in 1982.
Working for Magazines
Vargas followed in the footsteps of another well-known pin-up artist named George Petty and moved to Chicago in the 1940s to work for the esteemed men’s magazine Esquire. His illustrations through 1947 were used on numerous covers and also as centerfolds. They featured his captivating Varga Girls like those depicted on cards but in larger form.
Cards like these were extremely popular with American servicemen during World War II, and sets were often sent to them from home from friends and loved ones while they were stationed overseas. The Varga Girl was sexy, there is no doubt about that. But she also possessed a girl next door air about her similar to the pin-up styling of Gil Elvgren and the aforementioned George Petty that softened their sexuality a bit.
Nevertheless, the United States Postal Service actually sued Esquire for shipping obscene material because their issues contained illustrations such as those by Vargas, a case that was won by the magazine, as shared by ANBO. By today's standards, of course, illustrations like these seem rather demure and playful rather than smutty enough to warrant a lawsuit on the basis of obscenity.
Vargas later went to work for Playboy magazine and continued his legacy there. The girls he painted from 1960 through the mid-1970s were known as Vargas Girls (rather than shortened to Varga as it had been in preceding decades). They were nudes or very scantily clad, of course, since he was working for Playboy, and often more overtly sexy than his earlier pin-up paintings.
Regardless of where it was being printed, his work always reflected the ideal of beauty and desirability at the time in which it was painted. His "girls" ranged from 1920s flappers to his later interpretations of groovy ladies of the 1960s and early '70s.
Vargas Girls Cards
Esky* Cards depicting “The Varga Girl” are part of a series that included several sets. The envelopes included read: “In this package, there are 6 of the famous Varga Girl drawings—all different—from Esquire, The Magazine for Men, printed in full colors on special oversize deluxe stock—suitable for mailing and worthy of collecting.”
This is one of the many ways Vargas’ art was distributed to the masses, especially soldiers stationed abroad during World War II. The women he painted appeared on calendars, playing cards, and a host of other memorabilia valued by collectors today.
*“Esky” refers to Esquire magazine's original mascot—a dapperly dressed cartoon gentleman with a large blonde mustache and bulging eyes. His likeness was used in counter displays and advertising in the 1930s and '40s where products advertised in the magazine were sold. Learn more about Esky by reading Three Colorful Characters Forgotten by Time.