The lost art of the American pin-up

Story highlights

  • Pin-up art is undergoing a massive resurgence
  • A decent painting will now sell for anything between $1,800 and $100,000
  • The appeal of pin-up art is not purely sexual; it is about a return to the ideal of feminine beauty of a bygone age.
With all the sexy pictures on offer all around us, one would expect the titillating images of the early 20th Century to be all but forgotten.
But the opposite seems to be true. The "pin-up" art that was first produced in Thirties America is undergoing a strong resurgence in popularity.
Since 2000, prices for original pin-up art have gone up steadily, culminating in the 2011 sale of Gil Elvgren's Gay Nymph for a cool $286,000.
A decent painting will now sell for anything between $1,800 and $100,000. And according to Dian Hanson, editor of a new history of the art form, pin-ups are here to stay.
"The ubiquity of pornography has made people draw close to something that is more polite, more restrained, that celebrates women for their beauty as well as their sexuality," she says.
"These images represent a celebration of untouchable, unattainable female beauty. They were pin-ups -- not intended to be hidden under a teenage boy's mattress, but put up on the wall as a fantasy of perfection.
"Contemporary people are nostalgic for the relative innocence and charm that they represent."
The modern audience for pin-up art, she says, is in equal part male and female. This indicates that the appeal of the form is not purely sexual; instead, it is about a return to the ideal of feminine beauty of a bygone age.
The appeal of a more innocent age
Pin-up art is becoming part of a wider appetite for the more delicate sexual culture of decades gone by.
The popularity of the new burlesque movement -- led by the performer Dita von Teese -- as well as the rising popularity of Bettie Page after her death, demonstrates a growing counterbalance for the atmosphere of aggressive sexuality that is increasingly common in the West.
American actress Jane Russell poses for a pin-up painting
It is undeniable that the paintings had little to do with reality. Hanson, who made her name as an editor of men's magazines, at one point attempted to recreate the poses of the pin-up pictures for a retro cover feature.
"Women don't actually look like that," she says. "Even simple-looking poses could not be achieved by real women. It's about a fantasy of exaggerated femininity, without an exaggerated sexuality.
"The women are always innocent -- their stocking tops are revealed by a gust of wind, not because they pick up their skirt to show you."
A reassuring art form
Notably, the recession of 2007-8 did not cause the prices of pin-up work to fall.
"There is something reassuring and comforting about these images that makes them even more popular in times of hardship," says Hanson.
"Pin-up really got started during the Great Depression in the United States, and took off during the War when people needed an escape.
"Pin-up girls were even painted on the side of Air Force planes. American propaganda focused on the things you were protecting at home rather than vilifying the enemy abroad."
"They were never pictured as bad girls and always had ample, matronly bosoms, so they represented wholesomeness and the possibility of love, marriage and children after the War."
Something in that message, she says, is attractive to people today, against the backdrop of the digital revolution, economic uncertainty and global instability.
But are they any good?
There is another reason behind the enduring appeal of the pin-up: the quality of the art itself.
"Some of the artists were really very good," she says. "People like Gil Elvgren, Rolf Armstrong, and Enoch Bolles painted other subjects beautifully as well.
"There were some who could paint a girl well but were not great artists. Their work doesn't tend to be so popular."
Another reason for the popularity of the form, says Hanson, is a growing sense of disaffection with the more dogmatic forms of feminism.
As she sees it, many people have grown weary of the "man-hating" aspects of the movement.
According to Hanson, on a fundamental level, pin-up girls make people feel that "all is right with the world."
"At the same time," she says, "they get your blood pumping. That's a heady combination."