Skirts Ahoy!

How the master of cheesecake art lifted a dress and uncovered an American madonna

Art Amsie, a lovely 72-year-old Virginian with a conversational talent for synonymous triplets, considers himself the professor emeritus, the elder statesman, and the foremost authority among Elvgren aficionados. He first came upon the artist's work "at the edge of puberty" in a Boston penny arcade where vending machines sold Mutoscope cards--popular postcard-sized prints--for two cents apiece. He remembers it now as a minor epiphany, and considers Elvgren the "number one artist of all time."

"How can you compare him to Leonardo da Vinci or Donatello or Raphael?" Amsie asks. "Well, you can't make a sexy-looking Madonna, see? There's this opposite or contradictory or paradoxical idea of blending sensuality and innocence. It's to be said that his girls were not whores, not like porno. It wasn't dirty, but arousing, titillating, exciting. Same as the old stripteases before they became topless and bottomless and everything-less. None of that crap and filth and dirt."

Amsie recalls an incident ten or fifteen years ago. While on the Key Bridge in Washington, D.C., he noticed a woman crossing ahead of him. It was a particularly windy day and the woman's skirt was blowing up, giving the commuters a view of her gluteal region. "It drove everyone wild," Amsie recalls. "And this was at a time when you could see all the--excuse me--pussies and penises you wanted. People like to be slightly naughty, you see, and voyeuristic. They still like women; they just don't want to be slapped in the face with it all the time. Young men in their 20s see Elvgren's girls and say, 'Wow, this is better than those--excuse me--wide-open beaver shots in Hustler.' They want to be a little curious."

©1999 Benedikt Taschen Verlag, Gil Elvgren: All His Glamorous American Pin-Ups
©1999 Benedikt Taschen Verlag, Gil Elvgren: All His Glamorous American Pin-Ups

Though Amsie began as a pubescent fan, he eventually met Elvgren in Sarasota and the two became fast friends--"drinking and shooting buddies." He remembers their first meeting as another epiphanic moment. "He came out of his studio and I yelled, 'Stand there.' It was like you see in some ancient masters, when the clouds part and the sun comes flowing down. It was like that, to bless our meeting. A chorus of a million heavenly angels singing an aria from Beethoven or Verdi."

Amsie breaks joyfully into an earthly approximation of said aria but is cut short by a bubbling cough. "It's like when you hold a bottle of Coca-Cola up to the sunlight and you can see the bubbles and it's sparkling and effervescent. That's the Elvgren girl!"


One local Elvgren enthusiast, a successful wildlife artist named Ron Van Gilder, lives an hour north of the Twin Cities, at the end of a winding driveway through fields of long prairie grass lightly dusted with snow. His home is hung with framed studies of women in various states of undress and the unblinking heads of moose and deer--he worked as a freelance taxidermist before his painting career took off. On a pale winter afternoon, when the sunlight crept hesitantly into Van Gilder's studio through the North window, the room felt a bit like a cozy hunting lodge. "I was 25 and just out of the service when I saw one of Elvgren's calendars. One of the pictures in particular just amazed me; it was called "Well Picked." I was taken aback. It's like you have your favorite Monet; I have my favorite Elvgren. It's still my favorite.

"I had the thought in the back of my mind when I got a couple of them that it would be nice to have a sample from each of the big pinup painters." Though they weren't very valuable at the time, Van Gilder continued, he realized that their simple loveliness would make them so in the future. He especially admired Elvgren's compositional prowess. "I didn't have the resources or the guts or whatever it would have taken to go watch the guy make a painting. You know, you'd love to watch him work and ask him, 'How did you do that?' or 'How did you do this?' It was possible. That's just not the way things worked out."

Van Gilder, who himself painted pinups for the magazine Gallery, is especially appreciate of Elvgren's technical expertise, and casts a mildly disdainful eye on those collectors who are drawn either by profit or lust. "Men can take [the paintings] a lot of different ways. Some guys want black nylons or a bit of underwear showing. It's personal taste. Me, personally, I never looked at them that way."

We went into a room off the studio, also hung with framed pinups, to look at Van Gilder's own collection, which includes the original "Well Picked." It was, as he had asserted, a technical marvel--a picture of a disarmingly comely young lady wading in a pond of Monet-esque water lilies at night. He pointed out how the warm darkness around the figure's head and a seemingly innocuous hanging branch in the background put the girl's face in soft-lit relief. From a few inches away, the apparently naturalistic coloring of the woman's skin and clothing is shown to be done in too-bright purples and yellow--a technique that, like Elvgren's "mayonnaise-like" application of oil paint, serves to give the finished picture an interior luminosity.

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