American-Peruvian Artist (1896-1982)

Alberto Vargas is best known for a series of "pin-up" airbrush and watercolor paintings of American women first commissioned by Esquire Magazine. These paintings became American icons collectively known as the "Varga Girl." Note the omission of the "s" from "Vargas" which was at the request of Esquire magazine and proved rather unfortunate later in his life. During World War II the Varga Girl decorated American ships, submarines, and torpedoes. She also appeared on calendars and playing cards in that era.

Alberto Vargas was born Joaquin Alberto Vargas y Chavez in Arequipa, Peru, in 1896. His father was a successful photographer so through him Alberto was introduced to the airbrush tool. While in Paris, he visited the Louvre and was transfixed for hours by the work of French painters such as Ingres. It was then that he decided he wanted be a painter rather than a photographer. After completing his studies in Switzerland in 1916, he intended to go to England for an apprenticeship but World War I made travel to England impossible. Alberto planned to travel back to Peru via the United States. But within a few days of arriving in New York City, he became quite enamored with the city so he decided that he would not be returning to Peru at all.

He first found success in 1919 as the official illustrator for the Ziegfeld Follies where he depicted the stars of the shows. Florenz Ziegfeld adored his work and by all accounts had been a fair and generous employer. In 1930 Vargas married Anna Mae Clift, a showgirl who modeled for his paintings, after she proposed. Despite knowing her for the last 10 years, Vargas was reportedly much too shy to ask and she finally got tired of waiting. They had met rather by chance after he saw her on the street, fell in love instantly, and followed her back to the theater where she worked. The Great Depression put a close to the success of the Ziegfeld Follies in 1931. In 1934 Fox Studios in Hollywood commissioned him to do portraits of its top stars. These portrait were well received, but Vargas was blacklisted in 1939 due to his participation in a strike.

When Vargas returned to New York in 1940, Esquire Magazine was having a salary dispute with its main illustrator, George Petty, and was looking to replace him. Vargas was the only artist around who could fill Petty's shoes, but the magazine took advantage of Vargas's financial state. Although Esquire offered Petty $1500 per drawing, it virtually made Vargas an indentured servant at a fixed salary of $75 a week for several years. Later a new contract was signed for $1000 a month yet forced him to work at superhuman pace of 52 paintings a year. This was a miserable sum for the most popular illustrator of the time and the creator of the ubiquitous emblem of wartime America. Vargas was not a good business man and always assumed he would be treated fairly like in his Ziegfeld days where the only contract was a verbal agreement. Some claim he signed his Esquire contracts without even reading them.

When Vargas tried to leave Esquire in 1947 to do independent work, he was plagued with a series of lawsuits because Esquire claimed to have a copyright on the "Varga Girl" because it was not "Vargas." Furthermore, Esquire claimed to own all of his artistic output during this period, causing Vargas to suffer great financial difficulty. He nearly lost his home and tried to make money by designing cigarette lighters, perfume vials and bras. In 1950 the courts finally decided that Esquire did indeed own the "Varga" but not "Vargas" name.

In 1953, Hugh Hefner, an ad man at Esquire, left the magazine in a salary dispute. He created Playboy and three years later began publishing Vargas's work. In 1960 the Vargas Girl became a monthly feature. Playboy would eventually publish 152 Vargas paintings. Although this work brough him some financial stability, Vargas was uncomfortable with painting full frontal nudity and the overt sexuality as demanded by Playboy's editors. The pieces Vargas did during this period were often less detailed and less carefully painted than those done for Esquire.

Vargas had been very close to his wife throughout their marriage and was devastated by her death in 1974. He sank into a deep depression. Only a brief tour of Europe in 1979 brought him some renewal because there he was recognized as a serious artist--something America never afforded him. Vargas died in California of a stroke on Dec. 30, 1982, at the age of 86.

The Great American Pin-Up by Charles G. Martignette, Louis K. Meisel

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