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The Real Vargas

One hundred years after his birth, Alberto Vargas is still regarded as "The King of Pin-Up Art."
Paul Chutkow
From the Print Edition:
Demi Moore, Autumn 96

How he loved her.

You can see it in the way he painted the nape of a neck, the flush of a cheek, the sensuous curve of a voluptuous breast. Stand in front of one of Alberto Vargas' paintings of a beautiful woman, such as "Reflection in Mirror," and what you see is a man in love, passionately in love, and trying to use his art to express the depth and delicacy of his feelings. Gaze at the way he always rendered women, so glorified, so idealized, and you cannot help but wonder: Who was the real-life woman who could inspire such eloquent testaments of love and adoration?

Her name was Anna Mae Clift, and for the six decades Vargas was one of America's most celebrated and distinctive illustrators, she was his one true love. She was also Vargas' first model, his inspiration for "Reflection in Mirror" and countless other paintings, and she was the archetype for his fabled Vargas Girl, the luscious pin-up published each month in Esquire in the 1940s and early 1950s and then for 16 years in Playboy. But Anna Mae was far more. For 44 years, she was Vargas' wife, his business manager, his confidante and his devoted companion. Anna Mae was also Vargas' fiercest protector in the long, nasty legal battle the couple waged with Esquire over money, contracts and, above all, the rightful ownership of Vargas' name and artistic output.

Now, on the 100th anniversary of her creator's birth, it is appropriate to pay tribute, via the accompanying photos, to The Vargas Girl, a unique and enduring American icon. So beautiful, so accessible, The Vargas Girl made her way from the Ziegfeld Follies to magazines, posters, calendars, even decks of cards. In the Second World War, she made her way onto posters supporting the war effort, onto the noses of the bombers and fighter planes going into battle, and she went right to the front lines, tucked in the knapsacks of men far away from their homes and sweethearts. With his Vargas Girls, and the seductive portraits he did of many of the most beautiful women in Hollywood, Vargas came to occupy a permanent space in the male imagination and in our popular culture as a whole. With a style and subject matter as distinctive and easily recognized as those of Norman Rockwell, Vargas will long be remembered, like Rockwell, as one of the twentieth century's premier figures in American magazine illustration and commercial art.

But this is also an appropriate time to pay tribute to Anna Mae and to bring Alberto Vargas and his art into a whole new light. In a cruel irony, the sexy image and the fabulous success of his Vargas Girl have totally obscured far richer dimensions of Vargas' life and work. Indeed, while Vargas is known the world over as "The King of Pin-up Art," his gift for portraiture and his exceptional mastery of the medium of watercolor have been almost completely overlooked. His idealized Vargas Girl has stirred the hearts of millions of American men, and yet even her beauty pales next to the real-life, little-known love story Alberto shared with his Anna Mae. While Vargas' work has often been praised as capturing and reflecting the wholesome zest and openness of The American Girl and the national spirit, the course of Vargas' life and work--and the troubles he had with the magazines that made him famous--reflect something darker and probably closer to the truth. Indeed, when seen in a fuller light, the life of Alberto Vargas stands out as a tragic story of exploitation, greed and genius wasted.

Joaquin Alberto Vargas y Chavez was born on Feb. 9, 1896, in the mountain city of Arequipa, Peru. Alberto was the first of six children born to Margarita and Max Vargas, a prominent photo-grapher known throughout Peru for his portraits and landscapes. As a young boy, when he wasn't in school, Alberto often spent time in his father's studio, getting to know the equipment and the basics of the craft.

Like many well-to-do Peruvian families, Max and Margarita wanted their children to have a first-rate education, preferably in one of Europe's finest schools. When Alberto reached adolescence, the family plan was for him to go to Switzerland to complete his studies and then do apprenticeships at the best photo studios in Geneva and London. Afterwards, he was to return to Arequipa and work with his father. Max Jr., his younger brother, would go with Alberto to Europe and begin preparing for a career in banking.

Though he agreed to the plan, in his heart Alberto harbored a different ambition. Since he was a young boy, his real love had been drawing. In quiet moments in the photo studio, he taught himself to sketch and do caricatures. According to many accounts, even as a boy Alberto had an evident gift for art and drawing.

In 1911, as planned, Max Vargas sailed for Europe with Alberto and Max Jr., en route for Switzerland. Their father took them by way of Paris, where he was to be awarded a gold medal for a photo study he had done of Inca ruins.

For young Alberto, then 15, the museums of Paris were a revelation. The art of Ingres and other great masters thrilled him, and Alberto threw himself into trying to emulate their work. In later trips to Paris he would spend entire days in the Louvre, sketching the classical Greek statues and teaching himself how to draw the human form and give it life. Parisian museums, galleries and magazines were filled with paintings celebrating the female form--without clothes or any other inhibitions--and Alberto was deeply inspired by them as well.

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