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It Was All Risque Innocence

The Vargas girl images were familiar to soldiers and magazine readers. Now paintings and drawings of the pinups are up for auction.


Her legs are invariably long, and she seems to like looking coyly over her shoulder. She's taut and saucy, self-possessed and available--blond, brunet or redhead; clothed, barely, or absolutely naked. For three decades, in the pages of Esquire and later in Playboy, she was the luminous icon of male American fantasy.

She is one of thousands of pinups created by Joaquin Alberto Vargas y Chavez, lovely creatures known as Vargas girls. Vargas' use of airbrush lent his paintings a sleek, vibrant quality, and his innocent but daring poses gained immense popularity with young soldiers during World War II. With time, she was elevated from cheesecake to Americana. In a monograph on the artist, novelist Kurt Vonnegut is quoted on Vargas girls. They "bear little resemblance to real women," he wrote, "as they have no underarm hair or minor skin blemishes, have legs a third again as long as any women save for Africa's Watusis, and so could not possibly remind us of the mothers and sisters and sweethearts and wives we were supposedly fighting for."

Today and later this week, at two auctions in Los Angeles, a cache of original Vargas girls is going on the block. Ten paintings owned by the Playboy Corp. will be sold as part of a larger sale of the magazine's archives at Butterfields starting at noon, and 36 original paintings and drawings from the artist's estate will be part of a sale at Santa Monica Auctions next Saturday and Sunday.

Robert Berman, proprietor of Santa Monica Auctions, says his lot is "the largest collection of Vargas' originals ever offered at auction." The 36 works survey the illustrator's career from his demure fashion poses of the 1920s through the risque 1960s. Berman says, "As far as American illustrators, no one comes close to his style and technique in capturing the elegance, beauty and sensuality of the 20th century woman."

Butterfields' director of 20th century decorative arts, Peter Loughrey, agrees. "I think that the Vargas pictures from the Playboy era are the standard by which the market judges other pinup and illustration art. It became the epitome of the style."

Vargas was inspired by what he saw as the beauty of American women to make a career of painting them. When he first arrived in New York City, he recalled walking up Broadway when "boom! The doors opened and out they poured, more and more. I'd never seen so many beautiful girls in one spot in my life."

The Peruvian-born son of a professional photographer, Vargas as a youth used an airbrush to touch up his father's prints. His wealthy family sent him to Switzerland for an education, but Vargas found that his passion was painting. The outbreak of World War I led him to move to New York in 1916. Despite speaking little English, he supported himself throughout the 1920s by painting Ziegfeld Follies stars for their promotional magazine.

After marrying chorus girl Anna May Clift in 1930, he said, "I drew those girls but I didn't love them," adding that his wife "was the one I loved." She modeled for him but also invited other attractive young women to pose because Vargas did not use professionals. "When they come to the studio," he once explained, "Mrs. Vargas is always there to put them at their ease."

In 1934, Vargas and his wife moved to Hollywood, where he designed movie posters for 20th Century Fox. In 1936, they bought a house in Westwood, where they lived, for the most part, for the rest of their lives.

Vargas did not fully capitalize on his talent for accentuating the voluptuous beauty of women until 1940, when he was discovered by Esquire's founder and publisher, David Smart, who was looking for a pinup artist to appeal to the magazine's largely male audience.

In the October 1940 issue, Vargas' full-length buxom blond in black lingerie was featured as a gatefold, a fold-out color reproduction set into the magazine. Two months later, according to Esquire, the magazine's circulation had increased by 100,000; the editors' assumed the pinups helped. Smart convinced the artist to drop the "s" from his name to make it more "euphonious," and "Varga girls" appeared monthly in the magazine and on Esquire promotional material. In 1946, the artist had a falling-out with Smart over ownership of the name "Varga." The artist lost the subsequent lawsuit and all rights to the name. He then reverted to his legal name, Vargas, when signing his artwork.

The incident derailed Vargas' career and over the next decade, with fewer commissions, he channeled his energy into painting then-uncommercial nudes. In 1956, he took his paintings to the publisher of a new magazine in Chicago called Playboy. Hugh Hefner published five pages of them in the March 1957 issue, and the artist appeared regularly in the magazine from 1960 until after his wife died in 1974, when he retired. In 1982, he died at age 87 at his Westwood home.

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