Vargas - signature

Joaquin Alberto Vargas y Chavez was born in Peru in 1896 - two years after George Petty and the same year as Gustaf Tenggren. Like Petty, his father was a successful photographer and both of these classic pin-up artists were exposed at an early age to the airbrush.

This new tool was not the slim, lightweight model that we know today, but rather a large and awkward unit that took considerable skill to use, let alone master. The fine mist of paint that the airbrush sprayed onto a negative or print was worth the effort, however, as it could, in the right hands, emulate the emulsion of a negative or print. This ability to correct flaws in the photographic process (and in the features of the portraiture clients) was a major component to the success of commerical photographers of the era.

In 1911 he went to Paris with his brother and father. The boys were on their way to Switzerland for schooling and eventual apprenticeships, but the Paris stopover changed Alberto's life forever. There he "discovered" his two great artistic idols: Ingres and Raphael Kirchner. Kirchner was a premier artist for La Vie Parisienne and as famous in France as Harrison Fisher and Charles Dana Gibson were in America. Vargas was profoundly influenced by his technique and his approach to the female figure. Below is a Kirchner image from a 1916 portfolio and at right is a Vargas cover for a 1921 American Weekly.

Vargas - Raphael Kirchner painting Vargas - American Weekly cover
Raphael Kirchner - 1916 Alberto Vargas - 1921

See another 1921 American Weekly
cover in full color in ImageS #1

Vargas was summoned to England in 1916 to begin his apprenticeship with a major English photography house. With World War One swirling around him, he found it impossible to get from Paris to London. It was, however, feasible to get to America and then back to Peru, so he headed for home. He didn't make it.

Vargas - Norma Talmadge Theatre Magazine coverIn New York, he began retouching photographs for a living and drawing and painting. Kirchner and Russell Flint were the men who influenced him the most at this period, especially Kirchner's paintings for the Ziegfeld Follies. Kirchner died in 1917 and Florenz Ziegfeld found Vargas doing a painting exhibition in a window display promotion in 1919. Vargas became the primary Ziegfeld artist for a dozen years, painting portraits of all the stars of each season's Broadway extravaganza. Norma Talmadge from 1920 is at right. Perhaps it was from Ziegfeld that Vargas developed the tone of his art - the idealized depiction of the female form glorified but never vulgarized. Sensuality was everything, but the sex was never blatant. (Many years later he would find it almost physically impossible to produce a Playboy image with full frontal nudity - so ingrained was his respect for his subjects.)

Vargas - 1933 personal paintingThe Ziegfeld images could have no bare breasts, yet throughout the twenties, Vargas created several very exotic nude paintings. It is probable that these were done to supplement the money that he was surely earning - and spending with wild abandon. When he eloped with his wife, Anna Mae, in 1930, he had to borrow the money to pay for the marriage license. Vargas was never a very successful business man and when the Follies work ended in 1931, he scoured the country for income. A sample of his 1933 style is at left.

Much of the decade was spent in low-paying positions in the art departments of various Hollywood studios. As the decade drew to a close, Vargas faced desperate times. He was in New York and his wife was still in California. Work was almost non-existent. Then, in an eerie echo of his replacing Kirchner at the Ziegfeld Follies, Esquire hired him to replace George Petty.

Vargas - Madame du Barry
1943 ad for a Varga movie promotion

The "Petty Girl" had been a staple of Esquire Magazine since its inception and was generally credited with a good portion of its success. By 1940, Petty's price per picture and other aspects of his relationship with the publisher, David A. Smart, resulted in the magazine scouring the country for a replacement. Vargas was probably the only artist up to the task and Smart responded to his good fortune in finding him by taking every advantage possible of the man. In Vargas, by Alberto Vargas and Reid Austin, the original contract is reprinted in full and is shocking in its lopsidedness.

For instance, Petty was offered $1500 a picture to stay with Esquire in 1941, Vargas was indentured for three years at $75 a week with Esquire as his sole client and Esquire would take 50% of the monies gained from any sale of Vargas artwork. In 1944, under a new contract, Vargas produced almost a painting a week at the princely sum of $1000 a month. And the paintings were simply gorgeous.

Vargas - Esquire March 1943The gatefold at left is from March 1943 and is very indicative of why Vargas and Esquire were so popular with G.I.s in World War Two. Actually, though, it was "Varga" who was popular. The name had been shortened to make it appear more exotic. In the ensuing acrimonious lawsuits between Vargas and Smart, it was revealed that Esquire had patented the name "Varga" - under which Alberto had developed his reputation. Of course, the patent was requested and granted in 1946 immediately after Vargas brought suit against Esquire to break the contract that bound him exclusively to the magazine until 1957.

He won the first round, but while the decision was under appeal, he was enjoined from using the "Varga" name. In 1950, the decision was reversed with Esquire owning the name. "Varga" was dead and "Vargas" had to raise himself from the ashes.

Vargas - Legacy nude

Above is one of the "Legacy Nudes." These and other personal efforts were created during the lean times of the late 40's and 50's and were meant as an "insurance policy" for his wife. Sadly, she died before him.

Vargas - Playboy foldoutThe early Fifties found Vargas painting some starlet portraits in True Magazine, playing cards, and other minor efforts. From 1954 to 1957 he had a monthly feature in an obscure British men's magazine. A pictorial in Playboy in 1957 and trip home to Peru in 1958 provided much-needed emotional succor, but the late Fifties were a time of no work. Vargas used the time to perfect his skills and when, in 1960, Hugh Hefner hired him to paint foldout nudes for Playboy he was ready.

At the age of 64, when most people are considering the notion of retirement, Vargas began a new career that would finally give him the respect and financial security he merited. He worked for Playboy for 16 years during which time he produced 152 paintings. Many of them were masterpieces, but the constant need to create a glamourous painting of a sexy 19-year-old month after month often resulted in some formulaic and occasionally perfunctory work.

He retired in 1976. In 1978, with Reid Austin, he wrote Vargas, a compelling tale of his life profusely illustrated with rare and classic and even some previously unseen images. He died in 1982.


To learn more about Alberto Vargas, see:

Playboy's Vargas Girls The Editors of Playboy, Playboy Press, 1972
Vargas Alberto Vargas/Reid Austin, Harmony Books 1978
Stolen Sweets Francis Smilby, Playboy Press 1981
Varga - The Esquire Years Reid Stuart Austin, Alfred van der Marck, 1987
Vargas 20s-50s Taschen 1990
The Illustrator in America - 1860-2000 Walt Reed, Watson-Guptill 2001
The Vadeboncoeur Collection of Knowledge Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr. 2001
The Vadeboncoeur Collection of  ImageS  1 Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr. 2001 JVJ Publishing

Illustrations are copyright by their respective owners.
This page written, designed & © 2001 by Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr. Updated 2011.

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