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 Rolf Armstrong  (1889 - 1960)

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Lived/Active: New York/California/Hawaii/Michigan      Known for: glamour girls, pin-ups calendar illustration

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Rolf  Armstrong
An example of work by Rolf Armstrong
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:

Rolf Armstrong was born in Bay City, Michigan, but soon moved to Chicago, where he eventually attended the Art Institute.  After three years of study under John Vanderpoel, he made his next move, to New York City.  In New York, Armstrong began to flex both his muscles and his drawing skills.  He frequented the New York Athletic Club, and was as likely to be found boxing, as drawing.

In 1919, Armstrong traveled overseas and studied at the Académie Julian in Paris, France.  He certainly must have been tremendously influenced by Art Nouveau, which was all encompassing at the time, but hadn’t survived WW1. Art Deco was burgeoning on the horizon, with its more mechanical, geometric interpretations and natural elements were becoming more heavily stylized motifs. There were also many French artists who had become quite well known in the States for their paintings of delicate and bawdy dancers, Degas (1834-1917) and Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) among them.  When he returned to New York, Armstrong followed the lead of these French Masters and opened a studio of his own in Greenwich Village. It was also a convenient location to his own favorite subject, the Ziegfeld Follies girls.

In the early 20’s, Armstrong left for Minneapolis, and studied calender production with the publishers Brown and Bigelow.  He was most interested in the possibilities of preserving his images color through the printing process.  His work had begun to sell and he was commissioned to do numerous covers for sheet music and magazines.

Never one to use photographs, Armstrong always worked from life and consequently met the great stars of the 20’s and 30’s, who came to pose for his portraits (Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo and Katherine Hepburn, to name a few).  By 1927, Armstrong was the most popular and bestselling calendar artist at Brown and Bigelow (A feat worth note, in an age before Playboy ruled the magazine racks).  As the 1930’s began, Armstrong was working with everyone, from the Thomas D. Murphy Company, to RCA.  Everyone loved the spirited, colorful and often sporty “Armstrong Girls”.

The wealth he accumulated through these high profile commissions, afforded Armstrong a mansion of his own, in Little Neck Bay, Long Island.  There, on his beach and in the sun, he would paint his models, brought-in from the gray skies of New York City.  But when he met a woman named Jewel Flowers (in the mid-nineteen-thirties), he had met his “perfect, dream-come-true model”.  It’s interesting to note that in later life, Rolf Armstrong adopted the girl.  He spent the remainder of the 30’s in Hollywood, returning back to New York, by the decades end.

As WWII began, artists of talent were volunteering and being employed in various patriotic campaigns. In 1949, Armstrong was amongst the very best,when he was asked to attend a War Advertising Conference with Earl Moran and Norman Rockwell.  It was during this conference, that a member of the press asked Armstrong why he insisted on the use of a live model, now that photographs we so often employed.  Armstrong’s response came without pause and Jewel Flowers was smiling at his side: "When I paint, I want the living person in front of me. As I look at her again and again and again while I work, I get a thousand fresh, vivid impressions... all the glow, exuberance, and spontaneous joy that leaps from a young and happy heart."


American Illustrators Gallery

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Rolf Armstrong is best known for the calendar girl illustrations he produced for Brown and Bigelow's Dream Girl in 1919.  Sometimes labeled the father of the American pin-up, his pastel illustrations set the glamour-art standard for feminine beauty that would dominate the genre for the next four decades.  He was also noted for his portraits of silent film and motion picture stars as well as for his pin-ups and magazine covers.

Armstrong was born in 1889 in Bay City, Michigan and settled in Bayside, New York on the shore of Little Neck Bay, while keeping his studio in Manhattan.  His interest in art developed shortly after his family moved to Detroit in 1899.  His earlier works are primarily 'macho' type sketches of boxers, sailors, and cowboys. Armstrong had previously been a professional boxer and accomplished seaman, and the ruggedly handsome artist was seldom seen without his yachting cap.  He continued to sail his entire life and could be found sailing with movie stars such as James Cagney when the Armstrongs were in California.  In fact, he was a winner of the Mab Trophy with his sailing canoe "Mannikin" and competed in other events at the Canoe championship of America held in the 1000 Islands in New York.

Armstrong left Detroit for Chicago to attend the Art Institute of Chicago.  While he was there he taught baseball, boxing, and art.  New York became Armstrong's next home and magazine covers became his primary focus. His first was in 1912 for Judge magazine.  He later created artwork for advertisements, such as Oneida Silverware, as well as calendars, and sheet music.  He made contributions to periodicals such as College Humor, Life, and Shrine Magazine.  He became noted for his portraits of silent film and motion picture stars as well as pin-ups and magazine covers.

Armstrong moved to Hawaii in 1959 after his retirement from painting years before. He died in February 1960.

Walt Reed, The Illustrator in America

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Note from Sherrie Gregory relating to Armstrong illustration, How Am I Doing?

This illustration resulted from the FIRST time this girl modeled for him. Her name was Jewel Flowers, and she was seventeen and did it on a whim.  She blew into New York City from South Carolina to seek her fortune and wound up with Rolf on pure chance.  This picture was done for Brown and Bigelow calendar company and was a huge hit and in fact none were greater.

This oil is the study for the finished picture, which was done in pastel and as I discovered in a book, the pastel or finished piece was destroyed in a fire, so this MAY be the only original in existence. Since the model, Jewel Flowers, was totally new to modeling of any kind, she kept saying, "How am I doing?"  So Rolf asked the calendar company if they could name the picture "How am I doing?" and they did and it was the most popular piece they had had.

In the book I referenced there are a number of photos taken in his studio and this picture hangs in the place of honor over the fireplace!

Now... there is the pin up for the day story!

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born in Bay City, MI in 1889.  Armstrong studied at the AIC under Vanderpoel and at the ASL under Henri.  He had a studio in NYC until 1935 and then moved to Los Angeles.  He specialized in stylized portraits of beautiful women which appeared on the covers of national magazines.  He died in Hawaii in 1960. 

Exh:  Tennant Gallery (LA), 1937.
Edan Hughes, "Artists in California, 1786-1940"
CD; LA Times, 10-10-1937.
Nearly 20,000 biographies can be found in Artists in California 1786-1940 by Edan Hughes and is available for sale ($150). For a full book description and order information please click here.

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