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The Historic Vargas Girls of WWII

Who was Alberto Vargas?

Son of a noted Peruvian photographer, Alberto Varga discovered a French magazine La Vie Pariesienne during the time he spent there in WWII. After seeing the cover by Raphael Kirchner, Alberto's vision became clear.

When he returned to New York, he started work with the Ziegfeld Follies and for numerous Hollywood studios, and Ziegfeld, himself, hung Alberto's painting of famed Folly girl, Olive Thomas, up at the theatre - she was one of the first Vargas girls.

Vargas later painted his most famous work for the 1933 film "The Sin of Nora Moran", which portrays Zita Johann in a scantily-clad outfit and, in truth, looks nothing like the real actress. But the poster worked and to this day is known as one of the greatest movie posters every made.

World War II Pin-Ups

But what Vargas is best known for is creating the iconic World War II era pin-ups for Esquire magazine. These paintings, produced between 1940 and 1946 produced 180 paintings for the magazine, and inspired the nose art for hundreds of American and Allied WWII aircraft.

True nose art appeared during the war, which is considered by many observers to be the Golden Age of the genre, and at the height of the war, nose artists were in very high demand in the USAAF and were paid quite well for their services. Most AAF commanders tolerated nose art in an effort to boost aircrew morale, which the "Vargas" girls did to a great degree. The U.S. Navy, by contrast, prohibited nose art, the most extravagant being limited to a few simply-lettered names, while nose art was uncommon in the Royal Air Force or the Canadian Air Force. The work was done by professional civilian artists as well as talented amateur servicemen.

Tony Starcer was the resident artist for the 91st Bomb Group, one of the initial six groups fielded by the Eighth Air Force. Starcer painted over a hundred pieces of renowned B-17 nose art, including Memphis Belle, which was inspired by the Vargas girl paintings.

Contemporary research demonstrates that bomber crews, who suffered high casualty rates during World War II, often developed strong bonds with the planes they were flying, and affectionately decorated them with nose art. It was also believed by the flight crews that the nose art was bringing luck to the planes.

The artistic work of Alberto Vargas and George Petty's pin-up girls from Esquire were often duplicated, or adapted, by air force crews and painted on the nose of American and allied aircraft during World War II.

Later Years

Later, Hugh Hefner said of Vargas: "The US Post Office attempted to put Esquire out of business in the 1940s by taking away its second-class mailing permit. The Feds objected, most especially, to the cartoons and the pin-up art of Alberto Vargas. Esquire prevailed in the case that went to the Supreme Court, but the magazine dropped the cartoons just to be on the safe side"

A legal dispute with Esquire over the use of the name "Varga" resulted in a judgement against Vargas. He struggled financially until 1959 when Hefner started using his work, and his paintings took on an even more risque manner. Over the next 16 years he produced 152 more paintings, his career flourished, and he had major exhibitions of his work all over the world.

The death of his wife Anna Mae in 1974 left him devastated, and he stopped painting. Anna Mae had been his model and business manager, his muse in every way. The publication of his autobiography in 1978 renewed interest in his work and brought him partially out of his self-imposed retirement to do a few works, such as album covers for the music group, The Cars, a (Candy-O, 1979) and Bernadette Peters (Bernardette Peters, 1980; Now Playing, 1981). He died of a stroke on 30 December 1982, at the age of 86.

Many of Vargas' works from his period with Esquire are now held by the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas, who acquired the works in 1980.

At the December 2003 Christie's auction of Playboy archives, the 1967 Vargas painting Trick or Treat sold for $71,600.

His work was typically a combination of watercolor and airbrush. His mastery of the airbrush is acknowledged by the founding of the Vargas Award, awarded annually by Airbrush Action Magazine, which was named after him. Despite always using figure models, he often portrayed elegantly dressed, semi-nude to nude women of idealized proportions. Vargas' artistic trait would be slender fingers and toes, with nails often painted red.

Vargas is widely regarded as one of the finest artists in his genre. He also served as a judge for the Miss Universe beauty contest from 1956 to 1958.

Similarities to Alphonse Mucha

Both with an eye on the exquisiteness of the female form. Vargas painted the pin-ups of WWII, while Mucha's 'pin-up' girls graced covers, theatrical posters, and advertisements of the late 1800s.

At the end of 1894, Mucha's career took a dramatic and unexpected turn when he began to work for French stage actress Sarah Bernhardt. Quite similarly as when Vargas started working for Zeigfeld.

As Mucha later described it, on 26 December Bernhardt made a telephone call to Maurice de Brunhoff, the manager of the publishing firm Lemercier which printed her theatrical posters, ordering a new poster for the continuation of the play Gismonda. The play had already opened with great success on 31 October 1894 in Paris on the Boulevard Saint-Martin. Bernhardt decided to have a poster made to advertise the prolongation of the theatrical run after the Christmas break, insisting it be ready by 1 January 1895. Because of the holidays, none of the regular Lemercier artists were available.

When Bernhardt called, Mucha happened to be at the publishing house correcting proofs. He already had experience painting Bernhardt; he had made a series of illustrations of her performing in Cleopatra for Costume au Théâtre in 1890. When Gismonda opened in October 1894, Mucha had been commissioned by the magazine Le Gaulois to make a series of illustrations of Bernhardt in the role for a special Christmas supplement, which was published at Christmas 1894, for the high price of fifty centimes a copy.

As with Vargas, Mucha's posters focused almost entirely on beautiful women in various stages of dress. The difference? While Vargas opted for the more simple settings, Mucha set his goddesses in lavish settings with their hair usually curling in arabesque forms and filling the frame. His poster for the railway line between Paris and Monaco-Monte-Carlo (1897) did not show a train or any identifiable scene of Monaco or Monte-Carlo; it showed a beautiful young woman in a kind of reverie, surrounded by swirling floral images, which suggested the turning wheels of a train.

The fame of his posters led to success in the art world; he was invited by Deschamps to show his work in the Salon des Cent exhibition in 1896, and then, in 1897, to have a major retrospective in the same gallery showing 448 works. The magazine La Plume made a special edition devoted to his work, and his exhibition traveled to Vienna, Prague, Munich, Brussels, London, and New York, giving him an international reputation.

Possible Historical Novel?

There is no doubt the life of these two men would lend to incredible historical fiction novels, incorporating well-known celebrities of the eras, as well as a plethora of made-up characters. After all, who was "Memphis Belle"? Or why was the painting of Olive Thomas hung in the theatre... we have some great stories to pull from, such as the movie "The Girl with the Pearl Earring" and the supposed relationship between Vermeer and his muse. Who was Vargas' muse? Or Mucha's?

And what of the girls painted on the noses of the WWII airplanes? With the era still in full swing in the historical fiction world as readers are devouring books of this time period, a possible series of Vargas girls is an incredible possibility!!

Not to mention the story of theatre actress Sarah Bernhardt!!

I, for one, love the artwork of Alberto Vargas and Alphonse Mucha... but prefer the more tasteful ones, and is the reason I have chosen to update my logo for The Hist Fic Chickie Blog and Podcast to feature some of Vargas's work (with my own slight additions).

What about you? Have you written about a famous artist? We'd love to know more here at The Historical Fiction Company!! If you have a guest post for our blog, please contact us at and let us know. We will be glad to have you.

Dee Marley



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