Often described as the "Norman Rockwell of Cheesecake," artist Gil Elvgren is best known for his pin-up girl artwork that graced calendars, magazine ads and billboards for decades. Elvgren would have rivaled Rockwell in painting the idyllic family life images if he had not found his niche in pin-up girls. However, it was that niche that helped to make him a household name and distinguish him from his rivals/colleagues like Rockwell and Haddon Sundblom. But what many people do not realize is that Elvgren was also an accomplished advertising artist who included The Coca-Cola Company as one of his many clients.
Born Gillette Elvgren in St. Paul, Minnesota, on March 15, 1914, he was an only child. Gil's father was a Swedish immigrant who owned a paint store in St. Paul with an art supply section in the back; his father passed on his artistic talents and lifelong love for art to his son.
Gil's artistic abilities started to show at an early age through drawing, woodcarving and model plane building. As a young boy he would actually carve figures out of soap while in the bathtub. While he preferred the arts, he did excel in math and, after graduating from University High School in 1932, he enrolled in the University of Minnesota to study architecture. However that idea did not last long, as he chose to pursue painting and his high school sweetheart. Janet Cecilia Cummins' father, a prominent attorney in St. Paul, was not too happy with his daughter's choice, as he did not think that an artist could provide for her properly. The couple eloped and moved to Chicago.
Once in Chicago, Elvgren continued to pursue his art by enrolling at the American Academy of Art. Elvgren graduated in the mid-30s, and is still seen as one of the Academy's "golden boys." His first professional job was with Brown & Bigelow, the top calendar producers.
Elvgren also started working at Stevens-Gross, a leading advertising agency. Here he was to meet the man who would become his mentor, colleague and biggest influence on his style -- artist Haddon Sundblom. "Elvgren fell under Sundblom's spell," says son Drake Elvgren. "He quickly mastered his teacher's technique and some even say improved it." Through his work with Sundblom on many advertising accounts including Coca-Cola®, he developed his famous style, which he then transferred on to the pin-up girl calendars for Brown & Bigelow. It was this style that set him apart from other pin-up artists.
Sundblom was the most instrumental in getting Elvgren work on the Coca-Cola account. "And indeed Elvgren is probably second only to Sundblom himself in having his artistic images identified with Coca-Cola," says son Drake. Drake admits that in examining various Coca-Cola advertisements he frequently cannot tell his father's work from Sundblom's.
The first advertising artwork for Coca-Cola that Elvgren worked on was in 1939. It is a scene of a pilot and a flight attendant in an airport snack bar having a Coca-Cola with a plane flying past the window behind them. Elvgren stayed with Stevens-Gross until 1952, working with Sundblom.
In 1940, Elvgren began using Sundblom's technique of painting from a photograph of a model instead of from the live model. He also kept only his own work, often putting his name on the back of magazine ads with a rubber stamp. If Drake is ever in doubt as to whether it is his father's work, he looks for the model photos and the rubber-stamped signature.
As Elvgren's career as an artist took off, his family grew, with a daughter and two sons. A devoted family man, Elvgren loved the great outdoors and taking his family on vacation. Having settled in the Chicago suburb of Winnetka, Elvgren would pile the family into the car every summer and head north -- to St. Paul to visit the grandparents and then to Northern Minnesota. There the family would hunt, swim, fish, hike, canoe and camp. The Elvgrens also enjoyed a prominent Chicago social life, often going out to a party every night.
As the war ended and G.I.s were returning home to sweethearts, Elvgren painted m any images of "the girl next door." Some found their way into Coca-Cola advertisements, while others became calendar pin-up girls.
In 1956 Elvgren moved his family to Sarasota, Florida. There he concentrated on a career as a calendar pin-up girl artist. Brown & Bigelow was still his biggest account and he was able to make very good money. His son Drake recalls that he would often discuss his work at the breakfast or dinner table asking the children for ideas.
Elvgren's wife Janet died of cancer in 1966, leaving him lost and lonely. As time marched on and the 70s approached, the pin-up girl craze started to die, and soon Elvgren was down to one business account. When he died in 1980 he was broke, and his last work was published posthumously. But in the last few years there has been a resurgence of interest in the pin-up girls, and Elvgren's work in both advertising and calendars has become highly collectible.
In 1998 Elvgren's youngest son Drake, along with Max Allan Collins, wrote Elvgren: His Life & Art. The beautiful 200-page coffee table book includes hundreds of photos of Elvgren's work, including many of his Coca-Cola ads.
In 1999 Drake Elvgren attended the 25th annual convention of The Coca-Cola Collectors Club in Dallas, Texas. By coincidence, and prior to knowing that Drake would attend, the Club's board had chosen Elvgren's first Coca-Cola artwork, the airport scene, as the artwork for the convention commemorative playing cards and T-shirt. Drake was thrilled to not only be attending the convention and meeting collectors, but also that his father's artwork was a part of the event. Drake really enjoyed the entire experience. He was able to meet and visit with Coca-Cola archivist Phil Mooney and show Phil some of his father's original photos and sketches. Drake loved room hopping, a favorite convention activity, and was so excited every time he walked into a room where someone was selling his father's artwork on a calendar, cardboard or tray. Drake had a table at the swap meet and autographed his book. Drake told me that of all the people who collect his father's art, Coca-Cola collectors are his favorite. At the closing banquet, Drake was introduced to the members as one of the honored guests. The members of The Windy City Chapter who shared Drake's banquet table really enjoyed the opportunity to meet the son of one of the artists they collect.
As a collector, the experience of meeting Drake Elvgren and writing an article about his father for The Coca-Cola Collectors Club newsletter added a whole new dimension to collecting for me. The items I was collecting were no longer just things, or investments, or artwork on display. There is now a connection to the items and a history. Whether you are a seasoned collector or new to the hobby, I highly recommend that you get involved and continue to learn more about the hobby. Join the Club, go to chapter meetings, or swap meets, or flea markets or conventions. Meet and get to know other collectors. You never know when you may find the opportunity to learn more about your collection or stumble on to new information that you can then share with your fellow collectors.
Catherine Latturner has been a collector since the mid-1980s, she joined The Windy City Chapter in 1989. She is publications director for The Coca-Cola Collectors Club.
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