Mel Ramos: The Nude Pinup Debate

People make references to my work as sex, which is simply not true.” Mel Ramos told an interviewer. “Sex is an activity and nudity is a condition. When I do a painting, everybody calls them pinups. When Picasso, Modigliani, Matisse did nude paintings, people called them nudes. That’s what I want to be part of. I want to be of the group that’s called nudes not pinups. Jesus Christ.”
— Mel Ramos

Many of Ramos’ paintings hang in the same museums as Picasso’s, Modigliani’s and Matisse’s but, at 80, he’s still debating it’s classification. According to the New Oxford Dictionary, a pinup is, “a poster showing a famous person or sex symbol, designed to be displayed on a wall.”


Pinups are a very American phenomena, and their creators are some of our country’s truly great artists. Like Ramos’ work, the earliest and best artists painted their subjects in oil which were then transformed into prints. Their images appeared on calendars, magazines, movie posters and other advertising media.



Ramos is correct when he points out that there are differences between society’s perception of a nude and a pinup. America’s culture, mores and politics had to change before a picture of a glamorous, scantily clad woman could become mainstream art.


A few things happened around the turn of the twentieth century that initiated changes in the lives of American women and the way in which they were viewed. One of the most liberating changes was the manufacture of bicycles designed for women. With this new freedom of movement came the need to get out of the long, restrictive skirts of the Victorian era. What came along were “bloomers,” which were less confining and more practical than the ankle-hiding clothing that had been the fashion for so long.


The ‘bloomer’ began a trend in women’s fashion that led to more revealing and sensual clothing. Along with the change in fashion came the view of women as being sexier and seductive. And finally, along with greater freedom of mobility, American women were finally allowed to vote in 1920.


Men’s fashion was changing, as well. One of the first ‘beefcake’ ads (although little skin was exposed) was created by J.C. Leyendecker. His Arrow Shirt Man was so popular, that he (the Arrow Shirt Man, not Leyendecker) got fan mail for decades.


By the 1930s, the Brown and Bigelow company began to contract artists to make calendars with pinup art. One of the artists they used was Rolf Armstrong, often considered the father of the American pinup. The advantage of the calendar as an advertising tool, is that it looks good, it’s practical and easy to display, and it gives the advertiser a year’s worth of advertising.


In the 1930s, color photography was in its infancy, so using prints of paintings was an obvious choice for commercial art. By the 1940s, pinup art was fairly commonplace, although some of it was still hidden in back rooms. It was used to sell patriotic messages, to sooth and entertain soldiers and even to decorate American aircraft. By the 1950s, it was clear to the ad world that sex sells, so established artists, like Gil Elvgren and Zoe Mozert were still in demand, creating pinup art for calendars, book jackets and movie posters.


By the 1960s, Mel Ramos had begun his figure paintings, often using his wife, Leta, as a model. (The couple has been married for 60 years). Combining the female figure and popular products, Ramos’ work has all the allure, and fits the definition of, a pinup. The difference is that Ramos is not in the business of selling Red Hots or Jujyfruits.


“I saw an exhibition last summer at the Louvre in Paris—Tintoretto, Titian, and Veronese,” he said, “and I remember a room that was full of nude paintings. They all had such a sheen of understanding, which impressed me enormously. It was an affirmation of my own work. It finally became clear to me that I was on the right track, and doing a good job. I know that some feminists criticize my work for being sexist. But I think that my real roots lie in the wonderful history of nude painting.”


So, pinups or nudes, Mel Ramos is in the company of other great artists and we're happy to see his work on our walls.

January 11, 2016
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