Alberto Vargas

The History of Alberto Vargas

Alberto Vargas was born in the city of Arequipa, Peru, on February 9, 1896. No one could have predicted that a humble son from a remote Andean town would create a legacy that both shaped and reflected the ideals of American beauty in the 20th century. His graceful, subtly-detailed paintings and portraits helped define the iconic image of the “pin-up” girl, cemented his name in the world of art, Hollywood and pop-culture, and continues to influence subsequent generations of artists. Now, through the Max Vargas Collection, Alberto’s legacy lives on.

Alberto Vargas in his studio

The son of an internationally-known photographer, Max Vargas I, Alberto’s keen eye was immediately recognized and nurtured. As a boy he assisted his father in the studio–all the while learning the ins-and-outs of photography and artistic techniques including the retouching of negatives and the use of airbrushing. In 1911, he was sent to Europe (with his brother, Max Vargas II), for a Continental education and planned apprenticeship with a London photographer. However, his real education came by exposure to the great museums and galleries of France, Germany and Switzerland that showcased the late 19th century movements of Aestheticism and Decadence, along with the burgeoning schools of Dada and Surrealism. This experience was cut short by the international tensions which lead to World War I. In 1916, Alberto found himself sailing back home to Peru with a stop in New York City, a stop that changed his life and work.

The women of New York seized and forever changed his artistic vision. These were American women, vibrant and urbane, influenced more by the self-confident and vivacious Gibson Girl than the more conservative and trussed Victorian woman. He brashly decided to remain in New York as a freelance artist, passing up a life of comfort and inherited success, to follow his dream. After struggling to find consistent work, Alberto was offered a position with Florenz Ziegfeld’s famous Ziegfeld’sFollies, painting the portraits of noted showgirls. During this time, Alberto met one of his first regular models, muse and future wife, Anna Mae Clift, a strawberry blonde showgirl from Tennessee employed by Ziegfeld’s competition, the Greenwich Village Follies. The couple first worked together in 1917 and eventually married in 1930.

The Roaring Twenties kept Alberto employed as he continued to hone his craft. However, the waning success of the Follies and the ensuing Great Depression, hampered his ability to earn a living as a freelance artist. Cash-strapped and recently married, Alberto and Anna Mae headed west hoping that the connections he made doing ad work for New York movie studios would lead to work in Hollywood. There he found fairly consistent work at just about every studio, including 20th CenturyFox and Warner Brothers, designing sets, movie posters, and doing portraits of stars such as Shirley Temple, Greta Garbo, Ann Sheridan, Linda Darnell, Ava Gardner, Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe, to name a few.
His Hollywood success changed in 1939 when Alberto took part in a walkout with fellow studio artists. They claimed mistreatment and unfair pay, however, this resulted in his being blackballed for future studio work. Unemployed, Alberto headed back to New York, hoping his contacts there would prove lucrative. Anna Mae stayed behind in California, doing what she could to bring in money from odd jobs to housing boarders in their Westwood home. Little did they know that their fortunes would reverse dramatically.

Esquire Magazine’s editor was seeking a replacement for George Petty, whose “Petty Girl” was enormously popular. Alberto was the perfect replacement and anxious to work.  As World War II ensued, Esquire hoped to capitalize on the readership of American soldiers abroad hungry for reminders of home. Alberto’s first Esquire painting was published in 1940 with huge success. The magazine was flooded with letters requesting more. While working at Esquire, Alberto’s works were called “Varga Girls,” a name assigned by the magazine. Concurrent with his steady employment, Alberto also worked on freelance advertising projects and began work on an annual calendar of “Varga Girls,” a monumental success. His popularity with America’s troops was phenomenal: his iconic Betty Grable, Alice Faye  and other pin-ups could be found in GI’s lockers in both Europe and the Pacific theaters, on the sides of bomber planes and even tattooed on the arms of Dogfaces every where.

Alberto’s contract came up for renewal in 1943, and was signed six months later. Discontent with the terms after he signed, Alberto took legal action. He initially won, however, lost upon appeal. As a result, he never worked for Esquire again and his creation, the “Varga Girl,” not only died a bitter death but was forever out of his hands.To add to their misfortune, expensive legal fees prevented Alberto and Anna Mae from taking any further legal action. They retreated to the comfort of their Westwood bungalow, indebted and disillusioned.

Once again, good fortune returned. In 1953, Alberto met Art Director Reid Austin, who was working at a start up magazine called Playboy. Playboy pushed the envelope (for content in a nationally circulated publication) with beautiful nude photography and scathing interviews with powerful political and pop-cultural figures. Alberto and Anna Mae met with Hugh Hefner in Chicago and showed him a collection of never before published nudes he had been working on for over ten years. Hefner couldn’t resist featuring the “Vargas Girls” and Alberto was once again employed. Tenure at Playboy gave Vargas stability and once again the opportunity to showcase his talent. Alberto’s career with Playboy proved to be stable, lucrative and long-lasting.

Alberto enjoyed several years of success at Playboy until suffering an immeasurable loss in 1974. Anna Mae, his wife, inspiration and love of 44 years
passed away. Heartbroken, his work suffered and he eventually parted with Playboy. Reid Austin, coworker and friend of Alberto, released a book of Alberto’s  life’s work in 1978. Alberto traveled across the Americas and Europe one last time to promote its release and his art with his niece and nephew, Astrid Conte and Max Vargas III. Alberto died in Los Angeles in December of 1982.

Though gone, his legacy lives on. His talent as an artist and illustrator epitomized, shaped, documented, and in many ways, revolutionized the vision and beauty of the 20th Century Woman. The work of Alberto Vargas can be found in early newsprint advertisements and song sheets, as well as the album covers of rock bands such as The Cars and The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s. Vargas influenced and typified the iconic World War II “pin-up” as well as immortalizing images of the Hollywood celebrity.

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