Book Report: Gil Elvgren by Charles G. Martignette and Louis K. Meisel (2008)

Book coverThis book collects the works of Gil Elvgren, commercial and calendar artist from the late 1930s through the 1970s. He did a large number of advertising calendar illustrations, the kind that the calendar company would put your company’s logo on and your company could send it out to automotive shops or whomever your client served. The industry still exists in some fashion, as I’ve gotten a promotional calendar from the local Chinese restaurant, but I don’t think they do pinups any more.

And he made a good living at it, too. He bought himself a nice house in the Chicago suburbs and built himself a studio in it and then moved down to Florida in the 1960s. He became successful right out of the gate and was so in demand that he had to turn away work. His basic contract was something like 24 paintings a year for the calendar company at good money, and then commercial illustrations on the side of that. He was a prolific painter, and one of the paintings in the book he did in a mere two hours.

The works are remarkably consistent in subject matter. Well, they are pin-ups from the middle part of the 20th century, which means they’re young women in playful poses. In many cases, some action has caused the young lady’s skirt or dress to come up, exposing the top of her stockings and a bit of thigh. Strangely enough, although it was risqué for the time, women in the 21st century wear more revealing clothing daily, but without the aplomb.

The women in Elvgren’s work also share certain traits that mark them as Elvgren Girls, and the traits are put into stark relief when the authors of this book put photos of the models used for the paintings beside the actual paintings. Many times the model’s face doesn’t match the painting, which has that Elvgren Girl look to it. There’s enough variation in the hair color and expression that, if you’re not looking for it, you won’t see the commonality, but if it’s drawn to your attention, you’ll see it. It was probably a trademark.

The authors of the text compare his work fittingly to that of Alberto Vargas. Vargas’s work looks more watercolorish, with lighter colors and more focus merely on the woman. Elvgren’s paintings are more complete, catching a moment in time within a setting. The authors are partisans who denigrate Vargas, but the artists are different and should be not compared completely directly.

That said, I enjoy the Vargas, but the Elvgren stuff has more depth, and Elvgren’s working for the calendar companies and advertising firms strikes me as more entrepreneural than Vargas’s work for the magazines.

A pretty cool book. Multilingual, too: The introductory chapters about why a monograph about Elvgren’s work was necessary and about Elvgren’s life are replicated after the art work in German and French, so this book could be marketed internationally.

Books mentioned in this review: