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Gil Elvgren (American, 1914-1980)


Also known as:  Gillette Elvgren; Gilette Elvgren; Gilete Elvgren; Gillete Elvgren; Gyl Elvgren; Elvgeren; Elvgreen; Elfgren

Gillette “Gil” Elvgren (March 15, 1914 - February 29, 1980) was an American painter best known for his pin-ups, advertising, and popular illustrations. Starting in the 1930s and continuing on through the 1970s, Elvgren’s work pushed pinups from the edges of pop culture and into the mainstream. His lush, full brushwork was evocative and romantic, imbuing his subjects with emotions not previously addressed in other pinup work at that time.

Gil Elvgren was born in St. Paul, Minnesota. He attended the Minneapolis Institute of Art before moving to Chicago to study at the American Academy of Art. He graduated from the academy at the height of the Great Depression, but was able to find work with Stevens and Gross, which at the time was the biggest ad agency in Chicago.

It was while working at Stevens and Gross that Elvgren would meet Haddon Sundblom, the famed commercial artist who was best known for his design of the Coca-Cola Santas. Working in Sundblom’s studio alongside other noted illustrators like Al Buell and Andrew Loomis proved to be an extremely important part of Elvgren’s aesthetic development. Sundblom’s lush brush stroke technique became a staple of Elvgren’s work, and his time there allowed him to work on large, national ad campaigns like Coca-Cola.

It was in 1937 that Elvgren began painting calendar pinups for Louis F. Dow. Dow was famous for reusing art, making his artists paint over the subjects, using different clothes and backgrounds to create new situations. It wasn’t the most artistically fulfilling work, but even then Elvgren was able to pry more personality and liveliness from his subjects than others working in the field. It wouldn’t go unnoticed by others in the publishing industry.

In 1944, Elvgren moved on to Brown & Bigelow, working as a staff artist for them. This relationship would continue for thirty-odd years. Brown & Bigelow had a stable of artists pushing the field forward in new and surprising ways. Rolf Armstrong, Earl Moran, and Zoe Mozert were already titans of the pinup world. Elvgren continued to develop his style, churning out around 20 portraits a year and developing a repeatable painting process that allowed him to create new work with little turnaround time.

The 1950s allowed Elvgren, now firmly established at Brown & Bigelow, greater artistic freedom than previous decades. He moved to Florida and began a series of portraits of the people in the town of Siesta Key. During this time commercial work continued to roll in, from General Electric to Sealy Mattress Company to continuing work for Coca-Cola. He illustrated for many national print magazines including the Saturday Evening Post and Good Housekeeping.

As Elvgren aged, he became a statesman, advocate, and teacher for commercial artists. His work was applauded both critically and commercially and he went on to teach and influence many pinup artists who would become household names in their own right. He would continue to produce his iconic images until the early 1970s when he retired due to health concerns. Over the course of an extremely prolific career, Elvgren produced over 500 oil paintings for commercial use, ensuring his place in pop culture and the birth of Americana.

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