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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

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The early art born of this chance encounter comes as shock today, especially for anyone who knows Vargas only through his pin-up art and the Vargas Girls published in Esquire and Playboy. His early paintings of Anna Mae and other young showgirls in New York show a master's touch, and many have echoes of Ingres, Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec's renderings of Parisian dance halls and cabarets. His 1920 portrait of Lila Lee, also known as "Yellow Canary," reveals his gift for rendering and animating the nude female body. Likewise, his soulful 1930 portrait of the Ziegfeld Girl Caja Eric, with its shades of Rembrandt and Vermeer, reveals his depth and sensitivity as a portraitist.

Seeing these early works in the original is cause for both joy and sadness. The originals are high art, and yet the world knows Vargas' art almost exclusively via magazine reproductions, which suggest nothing of the sort. For while Vargas sometimes worked in oil, pastels or pen and ink, his preferred medium was watercolor, and no magazine reproduction can do a watercolor justice. Seen in their original form, Vargas' watercolors reveal a technique and grace that few artists can even approach. Examine some of his best originals and all you can do is gaze in awe and wonder: "How in the world did he do it?" Somehow Vargas found ways to use watercolor to achieve the subtlest effects: a nuance of skin tone, the texture of the hair at the nape of a woman's neck, the intricate detail and shading of the heel of a stocking or the tip of a breast. Clearly, even in his early 20s, Vargas was already a master watercolorist.

His stunning portrait "Spanish Lace," painted in 1928 and also known as "Spanish Gypsy," is a perfect illustration of the prodigious talent evident in Vargas' early work. The beauty of the gypsy woman, the rich color of her eyes and lips, the play of light on the raven black of her hair, the extraordinary delicacy of the lace shawl draped over her shoulder--few artists can achieve these effects in any medium. And as his "Spanish Lace" makes clear, few artists this century could convey feminine beauty with as much feeling and reverence as Alberto Vargas.

Seeing Vargas' early work in its original form raises two disturbing questions about the way his life and career unfolded. In his 20s, Vargas was clearly a very serious painter of enormous promise, driven by a desire to emulate the great European masters. What became of this prodigious talent? And how did Alberto Vargas wind up being known not as one of the great painters of the twentieth century, but as The King of Pin-up Art?

Necessity is a mother. When Vargas chose to stay in New York, and not return to Peru to work for his father, Max Vargas extended his best wishes to his wayward son and told him there would be no more financial support. The young man was left to fend for himself, with no command of the English language and no evident means of support. Worse, in a high-flying showgirl he knew he had found his muse and one true love, and he simply did not have the means to hire her to pose for him, much less to court her. So, like many immigrants to America, Vargas went out to find whatever work he could.

According to his autobiography, produced in collaboration with Reed Austin, an art director at Playboy, and published in 1978, Vargas first found work retouching negatives for a photographer on Fifth Avenue. His first art-related job was at Butterick Patterns, where he drew hats and heads for its sewing books. In late 1917, he sold three pen-and-ink drawings for five dollars each. When he sold five more for $30 each, he quit Butterick to try his luck as a freelance artist.

His timing was good. The First World War was drawing to a close, the Jazz Age was not far off and New York was a thriving center of fashion, publishing and commercial art. Vargas got freelance work from several New York-based newspapers and magazines, and he worked hard to develop his command of watercolors. By now, his subject matter was almost exclusively women. To achieve an unusual softness and finish to his portraits, he worked with an airbrush, a tool with which he had much earlier experimented in his father's studio.

Soon, Vargas' work caught the eye of the theatrical producer Florenz Ziegfeld, whose Ziegfeld Follies were then in their heyday. In 1919, Ziegfeld offered him a full-time position to paint lush, idealized promotional portraits of his fabled Ziegfeld Girls. It was a huge break for Vargas, and with a single handshake, he and Ziegfeld sealed a verbal agreement that would soon turn Vargas into the official portrait painter of the Ziegfeld Girls. For the next 12 years, the job would provide him money, stature and an endless array of beautiful women to paint. The shy, diminutive immigrant from Peru had landed in clover. Or so it would seem.

While Vargas provided the artistry, it was Ziegfeld who set down the aesthetic and moral standards. Sensuality and allure were the aim; sex should be suggested, but never declared. As Vargas later put it, from Ziegfeld he learned "the delicate borderline between a nude picture and a wonderful portrait with style and class." Or, as he also put it, he learned "the difference between nudes and lewds." Vargas' temple now was Broadway's New Amsterdam Theatre, not the Louvre, and Ziegfeld set the standard, not Ingres. Unfortunately, much of Vargas' work from the 1920s was destroyed in a fire at a warehouse used by Ziegfeld.

Throughout the 1920s, alongside his work for Ziegfeld, Vargas took on major assignments from the most prominent newspapers and magazines in America. He also did advertisements, brochures, covers for sheet music and portraits on a commission basis. His income grew, and so did his collections of books and fine clothes. Beyond that, though, Vargas was never self-indulgent or interested in money. "Alberto lived to paint," says his niece, Astrid Vargas-Conte. "He didn't paint to live."

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