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William Medcalf (American, 1920-2005)
Birth Place: Minneapolis, Minnesota
William Medcalf was an American pinup, portrait, Americana, and landscape painter whose career spanned nearly thirty years from the late 1940s through the 1960s. He is best known for his work for Brown & Bigelow, who trusted his eye and artistic vision so much that he became their go-to artist with all special-project calendar commissions for the company’s most important customers.
William “Bill” Medcalf (January 18, 1920 - February 26, 2005) was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota where, except for a stint in World War II as a gunner in the US Navy, he would spend his entire life. Educated locally, Medcalf never had much in the way of formal training, but he was able to hustle jobs early in life, eventually landing a job in the art department of the United States Treasury’s Bureau of Engraving from 1940-1942.
In 1942 he joined the Navy where he served in the Pacific, but by the end of the war was ready to return home to pursue his commercial art career. He had long admired the talents of Gil Elvgren and Norman Rockwell, both then-contributors to Brown & Bigelow, so his appointment to their staff of resident artists in 1946 was a dream come true for the young oil painter. Almost immediately, he became one of their go-to pinup artists.
Using his family and neighbors as models, Medcalf produced a series of paintings for Kelly-Springfield Celebrity Tires in 1947. These images would quickly put Medcalf on the map for his expressive lines and bold color choices. By the end of 1947, he had already become a marquee name in the commercial art world and he was “stunned and flattered” when both his idols, Elvgren and Rockwell, cornered him at a company Christmas party to pick his brain over contemporary painting techniques.
The 1950s saw Medcalf continue to develop his technique and trademark “glow” finish. He would continue to produce traditional images for Brown & Bigelow, but would also experiment with larger “novelty-folds” which would come in a booklet and then unfold four times, each revealing a larger pin-up image. These were best-sellers for the company and led to many reprints and reissues. Never one to be pigeonholed in his commercial work, Medcalf would also oversee and produce the company’s American Boy calendar series in 1953.
By the 1960s, Medcalf was one of, if not the most, important artist in Brown & Bigelow’s stable. His special-project calendar commissions from this time are the stuff of legends and are still in-demand when they appear in sales and auctions. His experiments with color and finish make a Medcalf portrait instantly recognizable and set him apart from many of his peers in the pinup world.
He would mostly retire from the industry by 1970 but continued to paint landscapes and the odd portrait up until his death in 2005. Medcalf left behind a lasting legacy as a commercial artist who helped guide the evolution of the pinup from post-war America through the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Through it all, he kept his keen aesthetic and attention to detail, a skill that instantly commands the eye and is the hallmark of an American classic.
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