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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Rolf Armstrong

Though there was no earthly reason he had to, but Armstrong like to paint his girls on location much as Sports Illustrated photographers do today in featuring the latest swimsuits.
Rolf Armstrong Self-portrait, 1914
When it comes to figural art, I've always had a weakness for pretty girls and the artists who paint them. Some time ago, in discussing the fairly limited tradition of nude figures in American art, I pointed out the fact that in the U.S., unlike Europe, such art, first of all, was late in coming (only after WW I) and instead of taking the high road to academic museums of art, instead traveled the "low road" paved with pin-up calendars, men's pulp fiction, advertising, and society magazine covers. In the past I've featured or discussed a few of these artists, Art Frahm, Charles Dana Gibson, Vargas, Howard Chandler Christy, most of whom, if they painted nudes at all, did so as something of a sideline. Over the course of the early 20th-century, before photography totally antiquated such art, there were perhaps no more than ten or twenty who in any way excelled at what they did. The point being that unlike Europe, which chastely cloaked its penchant for nude figures in a respectable, but thin veneer of classical mythology or feminine hygiene (those paintings titled, "bathers"), on this side of the Atlantic, the pretty girls were unabashedly sexy whether fully, scantily, or totally unclad. Any attempt to justify such art as anything more than sexually suggestive, usually revolved around humor or the beach. This defined the art of Rolf Armstrong.

Armstrong draws Cagney, ca. 1930s.
Armstrong's Karloff, promoting the
1935 release of Bride of Frankenstein.
As such artists go, Rolf Armstrong could almost claim to have been classically trained, having spent several years studying at the Art Institute of Chicago, later with Robert Henri (probably the Art Students' League) in New York, and then moving on to the Academie Julian in Paris. The man paid his academic dues (or tuition, at least). Judging from his 1914 self-portrait (above, left) he could done well modeling for other artists, he was quite the handsome young man. Topping off his training, and perhaps the most important aspect of it, Armstrong returned home in 1921 to complete his studies in Minneapolis at that famous art institution of Brown and Bigelow. There he learned the art of calendar painting. From that point, his career took off, allowing him a sort of playboy (not the magazine) lifestyle hobnobbing with, and painting, the likes of Mary Pickford, Greta Garbo, Henry Fonda, James Cagney, and Boris Karloff. Really? Boris Karloff ? (right).

Armstrong's early ideal of feminine beauty,
probably dating from around 1915 judging by the hair styles.

A Phototplay cover was about as good as
it got for an illustrator during the 1920s.
Born on April 21, 1889, in Bay City, Michigan, Armstrong was about as all-American as an artist could be. His father owned a company making fire boats as well as running a fleet of excursion vessels on Lake Michigan. They did quite well during the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition, but by 1899 their farm was in foreclosure, forcing the family to move to Detroit. His father died when he when Rolf was fourteen, prompting his mother to move to Seattle to live with her older son. There, the teeenage artist's natural talent took hold. He finished high school and headed back east to study art in Chicago. Strangely, Armstrong's first professional art featured men of action from the military, sports, and the old west. Something of an athlete himself, Armstrong taught boxing and baseball as well as art. And when he switched to pretty girls, they were not pinup models but wholesome girl-next-door types as seen in his Photoplay cover (above and at right).

Armstrong's change of style and content, probably from the 1930s.
Sexy, but not sexual.
During the 1920s, and especially the 1930s, as the American moral code relaxed somewhat, the demand for more and more risque female figures both for publications and calendars, grew more prominent. Comparing Armstrong's art over this period we find both the style and the content evolving. Both became more..."au naturale." Armstrong's list of clients grew longer and more impressive as the Depression, and later a World War raged on, including such big names as Photoplay, College Humor, Life, Every Week, Shrine, Pictorial Review, and Woman's Home Companion. Gracing the pages of these periodicals Armstrong's ads touted Pepsi, Pompeian Skin Care, Oneida Silverware, Palmolive, Kissproof makeup (left), and Hires Root Beer. None of these featured nudes.

From the 1950s--humor and a
flesh-colored swimsuit can do
wonders for a man's morale.
It's somewhat unfortunate that artists from this period, though they painted nudes from time to time (Armstrong more often than most), have become known as nothing more than pin-up artists. Unlike their European counterparts with similar work in the Louvre or the Uffizi, whose nude figures are revered as great art, American artists such as Armstrong and others are recalled as little more than "dirty old men." Yes, their work, to varying degrees, came to be quite sexy (as opposed to sexual). But the difference in how they are recalled today has as much to do with the synthetic prudery of the American culture than it does with their art, or art in the broader sense.

Rolf Armstrong, the master of
the "arty" pin-up.

An Armstrong "pin-up" from the 1940s. I wonder how many sailors and soldiers would like to have changed places with the calf?



  1. Thank you for the nice article on Rolf Armstrong. I think his art projects his love of women. He portrays them as full of life, healthy,happy, energetic, playful and sexy. I am a big fan!

  2. And thank you for your thank you.