- Carol E. Holstead
Vargas, Alberto (09 February 1896–30 December 1982), painter and illustrator, was born Joaquin Alberto Vargas y Chavez in Arequipa, Peru, the son of Max Vargas, a photographer, and Margarita (maiden name unknown). Vargas was inspired early on by the paintings of Jean-Dominique Ingres and by Raphael Kirchner’s watercolor magazine illustrations of women, which he encountered in Paris in 1911 on his way to Switzerland to attend school. Vargas apprenticed as a photographer with the Julien Studios in Geneva and Sarony Court Photographers in London. After a year at the Julien Studios, the war forced Vargas to leave Europe. Instead of returning home to Peru, he went to New York. He never received formal training as a painter; he learned the airbrush techniques that later made his work famous by retouching photos in his father’s studio in Peru. He taught himself to use media such as pen and ink, watercolors, oils, and pastels.
In New York, Vargas sold his first freelance work in 1917. More sales quickly followed. About that time, Vargas met the woman who became his most enduring inspiration and eventually his wife, Anna Mae Clift. A Greenwich Village Follies girl, Anna Mae modeled for Vargas in her off-hours. Although Vargas was instantly attracted to Anna Mae, propriety and poor English kept him from expressing his feelings for many years.
Vargas’s skill with watercolor emerged in his freelance work. He concentrated on painting women, using watercolors and airbrush to create a smooth effect. His paintings attracted the attention of Florenz Ziegfeld, who hired Vargas in 1919 as the official portrait painter of the Ziegfeld Follies. For twelve years Vargas painted about a dozen Follies’ portraits each year. Vargas credited Ziegfeld with having taught him “the delicate borderline between a nude picture and a wonderful portrait with style and class.” In 1930 Vargas and Clift eloped.
When the Great Depression brought an end to the Ziegfeld Follies in 1931, Vargas’s career stalled temporarily. He did some illustrations for magazine covers and some advertising work, the most significant of which was a series of full-length movie star portraits that Vargas produced for Hellmann’s Mayonnaise in 1934. The portraits clearly anticipated the style he would later use in his paintings for magazines. That same year Fox Movie Studios brought Vargas to Hollywood to paint pastel portraits of Fox stars. From there Vargas went to Warner Brothers, where he ventured into something entirely new to him, movie sets. During the 1930s Vargas worked for every major studio. He painted portraits of the major female stars of the period, including Shirley Temple, Imogene Wilson, Marlene Dietrich, Barbara Stanwyck, Greta Garbo, Dorothy Lamour, and Hedy Lamarr.
Tired of living in boarding houses, the Vargases bought their first and only home, a small bungalow in Westwood, California, in 1936. The house included a studio where Vargas worked in his spare time to perfect “his girl,” transforming his watercolor technique. He began painting on white boards instead of tinted ones, and he broadened his tonal range so that his flesh tones “acquired a translucent silky sheen with great depth.”
In September 1939 Vargas walked off the job in a union protest, effectively ending his Hollywood career. Then, in June 1940 David Smart, Esquire’s shrewd publisher, hired Vargas as an illustrator to replace George Petty, whose contract demands had exceeded Smart’s patience. Vargas eagerly signed on, renting an apartment in Chicago near Esquire’s offices. He even agreed to drop the “s” from Vargas because Smart thought “Varga” sounded more euphonious. The “Varga Girl” was born, and Vargas began to achieve his goal of making “a Varga Girl so beautiful, so perfect, so typical of the American girl, that I can put that picture in any part of the world, without any signature … and they will say, that is the Varga Girl.”
Between 1940 and 1946 Vargas created 180 individual paintings for Esquire; they appeared as gatefolds and covers in regular and military issues. He also painted Varga Girl calendars and playing cards and did illustrations for Esquire advertisers. The Varga Girl became synonymous with the phrase “pinup girl,” and U.S. enlisted men carried her into battle the world over. Deeply patriotic—Vargas became an American citizen in 1945—he also never turned down requests to paint or sketch “mascots” for units in the armed forces. When the U.S. Post Office accused Esquire in court of mailing obscene material, a case the magazine won, it only boosted the popularity of the Varga Girl.
In his Varga Girls, Vargas depicted an idealized version of the American woman. The Varga Girl had eggshell skin, long limbs, and breasts that defied gravity. She was both sensual and wholesome. Although the girls were scantily clad, their eyes were always averted. Reid Austin, Vargas’s one-time art director and biographer, said the Varga Girl was “fresh and beautiful and it was like she was saying, ‘This is for you. I’m not trying to be sexy but maybe that’s what you see.’ ”
During his six years at Esquire, Vargas worked at an unrelenting pace. Pushed by Smart to fulfill the terms of a contract that Vargas had signed in 1944 without reading, he tried to complete one painting a week. Mistakes appeared in some work—a girl with six fingers in one painting and one with a missing arm in another. On the verge of physical collapse, Vargas took Esquire to court in 1946 in an effort to get out from under the contract and retain use of the Varga Girl name. Vargas ultimately lost after four years of bitter litigation.
The 1950s were lean years for the Vargases. Vargas tried everything to make money, even creating product designs for scarves, neckties, toiletries, and lingerie. The most significant work Vargas completed during this period was a series of watercolor paintings called the “legacy nudes.” Some of these ran in Playboy in 1957, but twelve were set aside to be sold only after Vargas’s death to ensure Anna Mae’s financial security. Vargas’s fortunes finally turned in 1959 when Hugh Hefner hired Vargas to paint for Playboy. Over a sixteen-year period, and with only an oral agreement, Vargas painted 152 paintings for Playboy.
In keeping with Playboy’s mission, the nudes Vargas painted for the magazine were more blatantly sexual than his Esquire works. Vargas preferred a more subtle approach—painting pubic hair caused him considerable embarrassment—and some critics argue that the lack of subtlety in the Playboy nudes makes them less vibrant than the Esquire Varga Girls. However, the Playboy paintings were some of Vargas’s most technically masterful, because he relied much less on the airbrush than he did when he created the Varga Girls.
In 1974 Vargas’s wife Anna Mae died after a lengthy illness. Vargas continued to work for Playboy until 1978. After that he completed some freelance assignments, including several album covers. Vargas died in Woodland, California.
Both the nature and quality of Vargas’s work have caused controversy. Feminists assert that his work reflects a sexist culture. Some critics argue that his focus and technique did not show the evolutionary growth evident in first-rate artists. Admirers maintain that Vargas has been wrongly labeled as a simple pinup artist, when he in fact was a painter who specialized in nudes. Although Vargas made a living from his work, admirers have said that he painted for the love of it, because he revered female beauty. Ultimately, it was Vargas’s interpretation of female beauty that made his work, particularly the Varga Girls, significant. As the original wholesome nude, the Varga Girl became an American icon, a link in the continuum of idealized female beauty.
More than 150 original Varga Girls, along with papers regarding the Esquire trial, are at the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas, Lawrence. Vargas’s biography, Vargas (1978), written with Reid Austin, offers a critical perspective on his work and relationship with Esquire and Playboy. Vargas: The Esquire Years (1987), includes all of the paintings Vargas created for Esquire with a narrative by Austin and a foreword by Kurt Vonnegut. In Vargas: 20s–50s, the artist’s great-niece, Astrid Rossana Conte, tells his story. For a critical assessment and biography, see Varga (1991), by Tom Robotham. Articles of interest include Jamie Malanowski, “Vivat, Vivat Varga Girl,” Esquire, Nov. 1994, pp. 102–10; and Betsy Pisik, “The Varga Girl Turns 50,” the Washington Times, 23 Oct. 1990. A documentary video by German filmmaker Wolfgang Hastert, Vargas Girls: The Esquire Magazine Images of Alberto Vargas, also is available from White Star video, Kultur International Films. Obituaries are in the New York Times, 12 Feb. 1983, and Newsweek, 21 Feb. 1983.