Saturday, July 7, 2007

Alberto Vargas--He Kept Airmen Motivated and Aircraft Decorated

Alberto Vargas, 1896-1982

Alberto Vargas , 1896-1982, is far from a household name, but his art was the most famous of World War Two, especially among airmen, who loved to paint the noses of their airplanes with vivid, colorful, and often provocative artwork, commonly known as nose art. The Vargas Girl became the object of fancy for many a young, lonely airmen who was over-sexed and Over There, as the British liked to say. Many a Varga Girl ended up flying missions over Hitler's Europe, firmly ensconced on the nose of a B-17, B-24 or many other bombers and fighters.

Fighter pilots relax under the watchful eyes of Varga Girls.

What the German fighter pilots thought as they roared through the formations of scantily clad women is anybody's guess.

The 390th Bomb Group's 'Betty Boop/Pistol Packin' Mama'. Navigator Gus Mencow told me that when they first arrived in England, the group commander told them she was inappropriate and needed more clothing. Obviously, the warning hadn't been heeded by Mission 13 when this photo was taken. The plane was named after pilot James Geary's wife, who looked like Betty Boop. Later in the war, after Gus's crew completed their 25 missions, ball turret gunner Delbert Lambson also flew on this aircraft, until she was shot down and he became a POW. (Photo source, 390th Bomb Group Website)

Originally from Arequipa, Peru, Joaquin Alberto Vargas y Chávez came to the U.S. in 1916 after studying art in Europe before the first World War. He worked as an artist for the Ziegfield Follies and many Hollywood studios. In the 1940s, he began painting pin-up girls for Esquire Magazine known as 'Varga Girls'. Many of his works ended up as nose art

Vargas' painting and, below, its rendering on a B-24 nicknamed 'The Georgia Peach'

Vargas then had a legal run-in with Esquire over the use of the name 'Varga', and fell on hard times until the 1960s, when Playboy Magazine began using his art, now re-named "Vargas Girls". His career underwent a Renaissance and he held major art exhibitions around the world.

In the early 1980s, he designed the cover of the rock group 'The Cars' album, 'Candy-O'. He also designed an album cover for Bernadette Peters.

The album cover of the Cars' top-selling album, Candy-O

Vargas died of stroke in 1982 at the age of 86. Many of his Esquire works are on display at the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas. Vargas worked in watercolor and airbrush. The highest award in the field of airbrush art is named the Vargas Award.

The number one pin-up girl of World War Two, Betty Grable, graces the nose of the still-flying B-17 'Sentimental Journey'.

One way to recognize a Varga--or Vargas--girl is her long, thin fingers and toes and the use of bright red fingernail and toenail polish.

An excellent article on the history of aircraft nose art is found at

A website featuring many examples of Vargas' art is found at

Today's salute goes to the artistic genius of Alberto Vargas and the contributions he made to airmen morale and to the artistic beauty of many an aircraft.


Richard Havers said...

What a fabulous post Rob! You are a veritable goldmine of info!

I had no idea of the Cars connection.

r morris said...

I didn't either till I researched it. I thought he was dead by the time that album came out. Do you have any idea which Bernadette Peters album cover Vargas painted?

On a side-note, speaking of album covers, you should do a post asking readers to nominate their favorite album art of all time. That would be fun. I'm kind of partial to the 3-D 'Satanic Majesties' cover and Cream's 'Disraeli Gears'. Pepper's not bad, either.

Richard Havers said...

I've no idea on the BP cover.

That's a good idea Rob. One for a slow post day!