Vargas, Alberto – Peruvian/American Artist & Illustrator

Joaquin Alberto Vargas y Chavez (1896-1982)

In 1944, Peruvian-born artist Joaquin Alberto Vargas y Chavez completed 49 illustrations while working for an annual base salary of $12,000; in 1995, a single portrait by the artist sold at auction for almost three times that amount. These figures emphasize the dramatic contrast between the mediocre sums collected by the artist during his lifetime and the modern acceptance of his worth as a painstaking watercolorist and airbrush pioneer who earned a place in the visual history of the American twentieth century, particularly during World War II. Recent figures also accord with his patrons’ position and power, since they were the upper echelon of the country’s print and entertainment world at the time: William Randolph Hearst, Florenz Siegfeld, the heads of every major film studio, the publishers of Esquire and Playboy.

Vargas (also known as “Varga”, a pseudonym assigned to him by the editor of Esquire) specialized in women, albeit from a highly formularized and editorially constricted perspective. Although he was an ineffective businessman, his pictures in reproduction helped sell millions of magazines, ads, calendars and other products worldwide. At the height of his career, it was said a calendar adorned with his “faultless” American girls hung in every barbershop in the country and every barracks in the armed forces.

It is difficult now to look past the male-oriented eroticism or the “overtones of campy humor” and then appreciate Vargas’ meticulous technique, which he spent decades perfecting. It may be hard to conceive that this man, when asked by Hugh Hefner to paint a full frontal nude, was palpably uncomfortable with the assignment. But we must accept that his images spoke clearly to and for a specific era, and that his choices and ideosyncracies – his love of Ingres and Flint, his driving need to please his editors professionally, his naive intentions in contradiction to his suggestive images, his goal of achieving universal recognition – alchemically mixed to render his work memorable and unmistakable.

P4A acknowledges the assistance of Illustration House, Inc. in preparing this reference note.

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