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The Art of Seduction

Shaun Tolson

When the Bolles piece came up for bidding, however, murmurs of interest filled the room. That was when Allen realized that many of the 150 or so people in attendance that day were there for the same reason he was. “That whole group of people was bidding like crazy,” he says. “I finally got it for $28,000, but the bidding didn’t slow down until it hit $23,000 and that was my first bid. I’m still glad I bought it; it’s one of my favorite pieces. But I was shocked.

“It’s a lot of fun trying to get a piece that someone else wants and hoping to find one that nobody else has recognized,” he continues. “But those days are long gone.”

Those days are long gone in large part because one of the greatest collectors of illustration art, Charles Martignette, also is gone—although Martignette made collecting vintage pinup art a difficult endeavor for other collectors while he was still alive. Up until his death in 2008, Martignette owned a massive collection of illustration art, including hundreds (if not thousands) of pinup paintings. It took Allen about 10 years of negotiating before he convinced Martignette to sell him 18 original Elvgrens. Even then, he had to buy them as part of a much larger group of paintings. “He loved this art,” Allen says of the late collector. “Charles was a very frugal and sharp dealer, but you weren’t dealing with a [normal] businessman. He put such high prices on these paintings because he didn’t want to turn them loose.”

About a year after Martignette’s death, Heritage Auctions acquired his estate and has been gradually auctioning off its contents ever since. As evidenced by his book, The Great American Pin-Up, which Martignette coauthored with Louis Meisel—a fellow collector and owner of one of the oldest contemporary art galleries in SoHo, New York—Martignette collected all the major pinup artists, from Alberto Vargas and George Petty to Earl Moran, Zoë Mozert, and many others. But without question, the most desirable artist of all—and one that Martignette collected with the greatest passion—was Gil Elvgren.

Elvgren, who graduated from the American Academy of Art in Chicago and who found inspiration in the works of John Singer Sargent and Haddon Sundblom, entered into an exclusive relationship with the Brown & Bigelow calendar company during the mid-1940s. Most of the original paintings that survive (300 are believed to still exist) correspond to the images that appeared in those calendars, and according to Jaster at Heritage Auctions, the most sought-after pieces are the ones from the late 1950s to early 1960s. “You’re looking for a full composition, a girl who’s very well rendered and very pretty,” he says, explaining that what separates Elvgren from the other artists like Vargas and Petty are the detailed scenes.

“I only buy certain pinups,” says Bruce Lewin, a New York collector who owns about three dozen original pinup paintings, including numerous Elvgrens. “They have to have a sense of humor; there has to be something humorous going on in the painting. I love that about Elvgren. I like the imagination and the sense of humor and how well they’re painted. It’s the things that he dreamed up and concocted.”

One of Lewin’s favorites is a composition titled Jackpot, circa 1961, which captures a moment when a blonde in a black cocktail dress hits it big at a slot machine. The painting shows her lifting up the front of her dress to catch all the coins spilling out of the machine, but just like most of the illustrator’s scenes, this piece reveals only a little more of the woman’s figure than one would normally see. “Anybody can come along and paint a female with a dress hiked up or paint a female nude, for that matter,” says Lewin. “But it’s not everybody who can add a new dimension to a painting that, when you look at it, evokes a feeling that goes above and beyond looking at a pretty girl.”

“He really doesn’t paint a femme fatale,” adds Jaster. “The girls have a real girl-next-door sensibility.  They’re pretty in an all-American way, with heart-shaped mouths and round eyes, and they’re [typically] compromised in an ‘oops’ situation.”

“They were sexy but chaste, pretty, all-American girls,” Meisel adds of the women depicted in Elvgren’s paintings. “Those were the girls that the boys who fought in World War II were coming home to.”  

Some of Elvgren’s most desirable pinups include a bit of innuendo. On the House, circa 1958, depicts a skirt-clad brunette sitting on the edge of her roof, her legs wrapped around the television antenna pole. Similarly, Fire Belle, circa 1956, catches a blonde in a black corset, red fireman’s helmet, and fireman’s boots sliding down the firehouse pole. And then there’s The Wrong Nail, which shows a curvaceous brunette sucking her thumb, with a hammer in the other hand and a framed painting leaning against the wall. As Jaster explains, Elvgren’s paintings provide a suggestive, sexual situation, but they’re always well rendered. “Gil could flat-out paint,” he says. “Elvgren was a complete package.”

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