1950s: Gil Elvgren’s Pin-Up Girls: Before & after

In Front of the Lens

In 1940 Elvgren adopted the technique of painting from a photograph rather than working from a live model. This allowed him to meticulously stage a scene in which he could build sets with various props to portray different subjects and scenarios and perfect the lighting of the models. Once he was pleased with the set up Elvgren would then photograph the scene and the posed model with a 2 ¼ Rollei.

As you can see from the photographs, although the stunning final illustrations are technically impressive and are an almost accurate portrayal of his models, Elvgren took a certain level of artistic license when it came to the distinctive feminine figures he created. When asked about his techniques, the artist described adding “touches” to every painting. This usually included lengthening the legs, building up the bust, pinching in the waist, adding a little more tilt and tip to the nose, making the eyes slightly larger and the mouth fuller. Dangerous Minds declares the Elvgren pin-up girls as “the original victims of photoshop”.

Behind the Lens

Gil Elvgren (1914-1980) is credited with being one of the most influential pin-up artists of the 20th century. The artistic skill he demonstrates combined with his natural ability to capture the imaginations of all those who view his illustrations has led to him be highly revered by artists and the public alike.

In 1933 he eloped with his high school sweetheart, Janet Cummins, who he would remain married to until her death in 1966. Elvgren attended the American Academy for Art before moving back to his hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota and setting up his own studio. Much of Elvgren’s most famous pin-up works were created for the calendar company Brown & Bigelow, who he signed with in 1945. However, their first commission of Elvgren’s artistic talents came years before and was the polar opposite of his pin-up work – Brown & Bigelow asked him to paint two portraits of the Dionne Quintuplets (born in 1934, they were the first known quintuplets to have survived infancy and had created a media sensation in the United States).

The Bigger Picture

Related capsules:


  • Martignette, C.G. & Meisel, L.K., (1996) The Great American Pin-Up (Taschen).
  • Martignette, C.G. & Meisel, L.K., (2008) Gil Elvgren: All his Glamorous American Pin-Ups (Taschen)
Source: N/A

About The Author

Avatar of Sophia
Assistant Curator

Sophia joined the Retronaut team as a researcher in 2014. After graduating from Liverpool in 2013 with a BA in Ancient History, she moved to London and now works at Bletchley Park as a volunteer archivist. From test shots of Lauren Bacall to space suits for dogs, working for Retronaut means that Sophia can keep exploring the moments where history, culture and photography collide.

25 Responses

  1. JulianPorter

    It’s very nice to see evidence of how Gil Elvgren respected his models artistically, in that his images weren’t just libido-induced fantasy figures but (slightly enhanced) real women. Indeed, in an Elvgren pin-up it’s usually the woman who’s the most interesting thing, and not the ‘naughty bits’ at all.

  2. Chris

    In the dog and puppy “before” picture, can you see the bulldog clip holding her sweater tight?

  3. Karen

    So…apparently the models’ bodies were good enough, but not their faces?

  4. Skeptic

    In at least half of these, if not all of them, the models look better than the women in the paintings. The paintings just add a feel of the fantastical.

  5. Lo

    The models were actually his wife (just with different haircuts at different times obviously) so he had to change up the face and characteristics like hair between paintings so that he wasn’t painting the same thing over and over.

    The photos of her are meant more as stock reference for the artist than a “before” image. It’s what a lot of famous painters and artists have done over the years (used human models for reference) because it is extremely difficult to draw human anatomy without reference.

  6. Jim

    Lo’s post says all the models are the same woman and that it’s Elvgren’s wife. Not true.

    The first 8 pictures are of Janet Rae, who was never married to Elvgren. She was his next-door neighbor, and did pose for many of Elvgren’s famous works, but his wife was Janet Cummins, who never modeled for Gil.
    The last picture is of Myrna Hansen, who was Miss USA in 1953, and went on to a moderately successful career in movies and TV. She was never married to Elvgren, either.

  7. Karohemd

    Chris, it’s an old trick that’s still used these days, especially in fashion photography when an outfit wasn’t tailor made for a model and cannot be altered.

  8. Archie

    The real models were super-attractive! Love those nose-cone bras and the gals who had the figures to wear them.

  9. Picky

    This article should be labelled “50′s pin up girl paintings and reference photos” The current title is incorrect.

  10. Bicycle Bill

    Auckland beat me to it — Rockwell occasionally took pictures of his models and then worked from the photo as well. And of course Disney, in his attempts to achieve realistic detail and motions in his early animated films like “Snow White” and “Bambi”, had his animators work from photos, sketches, and films of live animals and actors.

    And I rotate various Elvgren images as the wallpaper on my computer and cellphone. There’s something undefinable but still appealing in the slightly ‘naughty’ pictures from the ’50s that is lacking in the ‘let it all hang out’ images of today.


  11. lason

    those are AMAZING. And I love all the background information that your Commenters have made. so educational!!

  12. komiska

    Thank you for this post – great pictures! Great insight into Elvgreens work! Also: so much art got lost at Photoshop nowadays …


  13. Alejandro Pardo

    Dear Retronauts, I’m a chilean free lance journalist and saw in http://www.businessinsider.com an article about this pin ups and the old fashion photoshop. So I ended here in your website and wanted to ask you if is it possible to use these images for an article in Las Últimas Noticias (www.lun.com), putting your credits in the photos and also in the text.

  14. soraya

    I’ve just discovered the site and the many works here, and they are all amazing. The comments are also so informative. These are gorgeous works per se, and the manner in which they were produced is fascinating. thanks for posting these.

  15. Laura

    Why is there chinese/japanese (or some other asian countries) writing on the dog house? And the entrance looks like japanese torii.


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