“The realm of dream and phantasie…:” Alberto Vargas’s Musings about his Muses

By the Archives
March 4, 2013
Vargas diary, page 25 Vargas diary, page 26
Pages 25 and 26 of the Alberto Vargas diary, 1940-1944. Alberto Vargas papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Column, True Tales of Our City
"True Tales of Our City," column from unidentified newspaper, 1955 Apr. Alberto Vargas papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Alberto Vargas (1896–1982), the Peruvian-born, Swiss-trained artist is most often known for “Varga Girls,” or later “Vargas Girls,” his airbrushed centerfolds in Esquire and Playboy. While in the current age of airbrushing and computer manipulation of images one may view models in nearly any magazine with suspicion about their proportions, Alberto Vargas worked during a different time. He was on the search for an ideal girl, a woman, an American, and he describes her in his August 1940 diary in a dream sequence.

While previously in my diary research I have focused on diaries with dates, factual reportage, and other concrete matter, Vargas’s diary contains drafts of letters, plans, imagined conversations, and dreams. Whether the main dream that captured my imagination was a daydream or an actual dream he experienced remains to be seen. Nevertheless, what Vargas chose to record about himself paints a picture of artist qua artist. In a dialogue he records or invents, he writes himself saying to “Mary,” “Jim,” and another person:

Whoa, fellows — what do you think I’ve been hired for — to work or play at my profession? I’ve got to deliver 12 paintings as soon as in the shortest time possible — I’m as nervous as a cat with 12 kittens — haha. I still don’t see how I am going to do it but it will be done. Besides — my eyes are riveted on the future!...Yes — all my friends are beginning to understand that golden Jacob’s Ladder — I am on my way up! So please you guys — don’t trip me! don’t [sic] ask me to have you around! When I work — I work alone. I’ve got to have complete concentration, & exquisite aplication [sic] to they [sic] task ahead! I hope all this won’t make you tab me as selfish — or philanderer — or what have you — would it.
Photograph of Anna Mae Clift in Greenwich Village Follies
Anna Mae Clift in Greenwich Village Follies of 1921 at the Shubert Theatre, 1921?. Alberto Vargas papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Vargas is aware of the less-than-honorable intentions of other workers in the field, and declares that he is not like them. The story continues and Vargas describes an interaction with a friend who encourages him to simply ask the girl he admires to model for him. Alberto somehow is connected to a Mr. Garfield, who commissions him to paint Ziegfeld Follies girls, his “Dream Girl” among them. Upon Alberto’s exclamations of excitement and vows to paint the girls “as they had never been painted before,” Mr. Garfield declares to his secretary, “These artists are temperamental or crazy — this one is both. Tell Dan to take him in charge and see that he delivers on what he promises — or else!”

The stakes are high as Mr. Garfield also warns the newly-chosen Follies girls in the room to “keep out of the newspaper headlines — I mean the unfavorable headlines — it is up to you.” The lady Alberto wanted to paint visits him next, a Miss Clift. As he explains to her the pose he would like, he assures her:

I wish to confess though — and I hope you’ll understand — at this moment — there on the model stand as Miss Clift you only exist to me purely as a name — for a girl that is my eagerness in posing and painting you is strictly — impersonal. You’re the lucky possessor of beautiful face — a gorgeous torso — and voluptuous legs — one in a million — I am not exagerating [sic].

She replies, “ ‘Maybe you’re handing me — the Latin line?’

           ‘The only ‘lines’ I know — you posses them!’

           ‘I feel flattered.’ —

           ‘To continue — then. — my only concern is to try to duplicate on canvas — what my eyes behold. ’ ”

Vargas gets down to work and describes how he sketches “without waisting [sic] a single stroke...His ‘Girl’ in the flesh — right up there six feet away — being instrumental in duplicating in line and form — on a virgin white paper — the vision — the dream — of long ago — into a reality of today. He felt indeed exuberantly happy and very proud of himself —”

While reading this in a post-feminist world, I admit I was suspect of Vargas’s motives for painting from the start. However, fact or fantasy aside, what Vargas chose to record was that he was a man who appreciated a certain type of beauty in the flesh. He wanted to capture on paper exactly what he saw in the women he painted. Sketching on “a virgin white paper” also reveals something about his fantasy, an element of purity, of untouched paper or model. He mentions also looking out the window as Miss Clift walked to the model stand. The artist had a sense of propriety, and his paintings of beautiful women were part of a quest for the most beautiful, pure lady.

Further reading in Vargas’s records include newspaper clippings and fan mail. The sequence of papers was just as magical as Vargas happening upon his “Dream Girl.” While reading a newspaper feature “True Tales of Our City” by Don Ryan, I learned that Vargas married a Broadway showgirl, Anna Mae Clift...the Miss Clift of the dream! I hope he showed his fantasy about painting his wife to her as a Valentine!

Q Miceli is a former Archives of American Art intern who is currently studying to be a health coach.