Pin-up Art of Gil Elvgren

An American Illustrator and His Lovely Ladies

52 American beauties playing cards illustrated by Gil Elvgren

Pamela Y. Wiggins

American artist Gil Elvgren’s given name was Gillette when he was born in St. Paul, Minnesota in March of 1914. He started pursuing an art career after graduating from high school. He worked continually as a pin-up artist until his death in February of 1980 at the age of 65.

Career Overview

Like his contemporary George Petty, Elvgren is recognized as one of the pin-up artist greats. He was said to have been influenced early on by Victorian predecessors Charles Dana Gibson, Howard Chandler Christy, and Harrison Fisher, who all had an affinity for painting beautiful women. He “collected” the work of these artists tearing pages from publications, and he studied their techniques. He was influenced by the artistic style of Howard Pyle’s Brandywine School as well.

After finishing high school, Elvgren studied at the Minneapolis Institute of Art before moving to Chicago to continue on at the American Academy of Art. Eventually, he moved back to his hometown of St. Paul and opened a studio. His first paid commissions were fashion catalog covers.

Not long after, the huge calendar publishing firm Brown & Bigelow contacted the young artist and he got his big break. He was hired to paint the Dionne Quintuplets for 1937 and 1938 calendars featuring the children which were an “enormous success,” according to GilElvgren.com.

He began his career as a pin-up artist in 1937 when he was approached by the flourishing Louis F. Dow Calendar Company. The business not only featured Elvgren pin-ups on calendars but on other products such as playing cards and notepads.

In 1940 he decided closing his studio and moving back to Chicago would further his success. He took a position with Stevens/Gross Studio. While working for the firm he met his mentor Haddon H. Sundblom, best known for his Santa Claus illustrations done for Coca-Cola, and the two men became great friends. Through introductions made by Sundblom, Elvgren garnered advertising work for Coke that spanned 25 years including a number of roadside billboards.

The early 1940s also saw Elvgren supporting the war effort doing a thematic series for General Electric. The first illustration featuring a beautiful girl wearing a Red Cross Motor Corps uniform was published in 1942 in Good Housekeeping with the caption “She Knows What Freedom Really Means.” The Louis F. Dow company repackaged 8” x 10” booklets of Elvgren pin-ups so they could be mailed overseas without an envelope during this time as well, and they were quite a hit with soldiers longing for home.

By the mid-1940s he went to work for Brown & Bigelow as one of the firm’s pin-up artists, and the job proved to be very lucrative making him one of the highest paid illustrators working in the country at that time. He continued with them through the 1970s. His agreement with Brown & Bigelow allowed him to complete advertising art commissions for other businesses like Orange Crush and Sealy Mattress Company during the same era. Noteworthy magazines featuring his art in the 1940s and ‘50s include Cosmopolitan and McCall’s, according to GilElvgren.com.

In 1956, he moved his family to Florida where many fellow commercial artists resided including his good friends Al Buell and Thornton Utz. He continued to work there, setting up a new studio complete with an assistant. In fact, he had more offers of work than he could possibly complete and magazines were known to patiently wait as long as a year for one of his illustrations.

In 1966, Elvgren lost his beloved wife Janet to cancer. In his grief, he immersed himself in his work. He was at a point in his career where he could take on only the projects he valued the most, and he perfected each one. In fact, his 1960s pin-ups are recognized as some of his best in terms of composition and execution.

Elvgren’s Beautiful Pin-up Models

Elvgren used a variety of models ranging from the girl next door to a number of up and coming actresses. The famed artist often constructed special sets in both his Illinois and Florida studios designed to capture a pose he had in mind. The models would be carefully placed in the scene before being photographed.

Photographs of each pose were made prior to Elvgren painting the girls. He used the photos as inspiration for his final works but admitted making subtle changes to enhance features such as legs, lips, and noses. Even the hair colors and styles could be adjusted in the painting to get them just right, as could the clothing and shoes worn by the models. 

Elvgren, according to ElvgrenPinup.com, favored models with a “fifteen-year-old-face on a
twenty-year-old-body.” He liked young ladies with expressive faces that weren’t quite mature enough yet to have the poise of an older woman. His models included some famous names like Myrna Loy, Donna Reed, and Kim Novack. Actress Myrna Hansen, who was also crowned Miss America 1953 and runner-up for the Miss Universe title that same year, was also an Elvgren pin-up model posting for more than 50 of his pictures.

Information included with collectible "52 American Beauties" playing cards indicates that Elvgren was a "connoisseur of beauty" and that he went "all out" to find as close to the ideal type as possible for his models. He also had the distinction of being one of the few "girl artists" who painted exclusively in oils.

Collecting Elvgren

While most of his paintings were produced for commercial art projects, Elvgren’s artistry now holds its own among collectors and his original oils on both canvas and board is highly desirable. Many of these paintings were given away by the artist while his business was flourishing from the 1950s on as he was being compensated by the companies commissioning the works. He occasionally painted for his own enjoyment, including several nudes that were never published.

Vintage Elvgren collectibles include calendars, notepads, ink blotters, playing cards, Mutoscope cards, jigsaw puzzles, matchbook covers, and even sexy “Eye Opener” letter openers. The Louis F. Dow Calendar Company also made specially designed booklets with Elvgren pin-ups on the covers and a dozen more prints inside suitable for framing.

Elvgren works can oftentimes be dated by the style of signature used on the item. During his career at Brown and Bigelow, he had two main signatures which looked similar but differed in size. His early signature used from the mid-1940s through the mid-1950s was about half the width and height of his later signature, which was more boldly executed. The larger signature is said to relate to his growing reputation from 1958 through the ‘70s.