Vargas started out as an artist from a young age: his photographer father had taught him how to use an airbrush when he was just thirteen. After studying art in Geneva and Zurich, Alberto came to America in 1916 to escape World War I.
Vargas’ early employment was fairly unglamorous, doing run-of-the-mill fashion illustration for the Adelson Hat Company and Butterick Patterns, but that changed in May, 1919, when an employee of the Ziegfeld Follies – famous for their attractive chorus girls – saw the 23-year-old artist painting in a shop window in New York City and urged him to show his work to Florenz Zeigfeld, who immediately commissioned Vargas to paint portraits of the stars of his Follies.
This led to work from Paramount and Twentieth Century Fox doing promotional artwork and posters for their films. In 1940, Vargas was hired by Esquire magazine, under the odd condition that he drop the ’s’ from his name, and it was there that the popular ‘Varga Girl’ was born. Alberto would eventually end up returning to signing his true name to his work after a legal dispute with Esquire in 1948 over Vargas producing his own pin-up calendars that competed with Esquire’s own.
Throughout the 1950s, Alberto continued to work for Hollywood studios doing posters as well as doing pin-ups, and was asked by Hugh Hefner in 1960 to begin producing art for Playboy, after the magazine ran a feature on Vargas’ work. Vargas would do over 150 pieces for Playboy as their primary artist.
Despite working around beautiful and famous female subjects for nearly all of his career, Alberto’s muse was much closer to home: it was the death of his wife of forty-four years in 1974 that caused Vargas to lose interest in painting, and he would only create new works very sporadically until his death in December 1982 at the age of 86.