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Huge and Loyal Audience

Patrick Nagel produced some of the most recognizable images of feminine beauty in the 20th century. Combining sensibilities of fine art and commercial illustration, the "Nagel woman" continues to engage a huge and loyal audience.

Nagel was born in Ohio in 1945 but grew up and spent the majority of his life in Los Angeles. After serving in the Vietnam War, he studied at the Chouinard Art Institute and graduated with a degree in Fine Arts from California State University at Fullerton.

After a couple of years in the freelance world, Nagel accepted a position in graphic design with ABC-TV. It was a brief stint creating television graphics for promotions and news broadcasts; after only a year he returned to freelancing and received commissions from a wide array of major corporations and magazines. This impressive resume included work for MGM, Universal Studios, United Artists, IBM, ITT, Harper's Magazine, Architectural Digest, Rolling Stone, Oui and Playboy.

It was Playboy that ultimately launched Nagel. Beginning in 1976, he was a regular contributor. His unique, art-deco-inspired erotic images garnered a huge following and eventually brought a celebrity-like status. Hugh Hefner remains the largest collector of his works, which fittingly reside in the Playboy Mansion.

A couple of years into his work for Playboy, Nagel produced his first poster image for Mirage Editions. It was the start of a long and remarkable body of poster work and helped him achieve the immense distribution that has made his images so well-known.

Nagel's popularity grew steadily with further work for commercial clients such as Intel, Lucky Strike and Budweiser. His cover for the best-selling Rio album by Duran Duran, released in 1978, further guaranteed the "Nagel woman" a place in America's cultural psyche.

Typical Nagel women have black hair, full lips, high cheekbones, gleaming white skin and intensely erotic eyes. They stare out at the viewer with a mixture of challenge and sensuality. The features are simplified into clean and crisp lines. Nagel attempts to convey the maximum sensuality with the fewest possible elements, and succeeds masterfully. The women are sophisticated and confident, yet mysterious and alluring. Many commentators have noted their aloof quality; the Nagel woman is intelligent and attractive yet seemingly unknowable.

The two primary influences that appear to have shaped Nagel's artistic sensibility were Japanese woodblock printing and art-deco. We see stylized figures composed with simplicity and precision and solid geometry. There are bold lines, neutral backgrounds and areas of solid black and white. The images are flattened into two dimensions. The realism, hyperrealism or pseudo-realism of other erotic artists is absent, at no cost to the powerful and intelligent sexuality.

Nagel often started with a photograph and began paring down the different elements until he'd reached maximum simplicity. He took great pleasure and time in producing the preliminary drawings, considering the painting stage more of a chore than a joy. He liked to refer to Alfred Hitchcock's statement that the real fun lay in the script-writing, while creating the film was work.

Besides working with Playboy models such as Cathy St. George and Shannon Tweed, Nagel painted numerous portraits of celebrities. These include a limited-edition serigraph of Joan Collins, who Nagel felt typified the sophisticated glamour of an 80s woman, and a series of limited-edition portraits of Mick Jagger.

The popularity of Nagel's erotic images is difficult to overstate. His first one-man exhibition of paintings sold out in fifteen minutes. It was the first of many to draw huge crowds. When Nagel died, over 80,000 people owned one of his limited-edition prints. His work appears in the collections of many institutions, including the Smithsonian Institute, the Bibliotheque des Arts Decoratifs, The Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts at U.C.L.A and the Library of Congress. His work is broadly respected for bridging the gap between fine and commercial art.

Unfortunately, Patrick Nagel met an early death at the age of 38. He was known as a heavy smoker and drinker, and there were rumors of drug use, but it was, ironically, exercise which brought him to an unfortunate end. He suffered a heart attack on his way home from a celebrity "Aerobathon."

Major Accomplishments

  • commissions from a great variety of major corporations, including MGM, Universal Studios, United Artists, IBM, Lucky Strike, Intel and Budweiser.
  • regular contributor to Playboy magazine.
  • cover art for the best-selling Duran Duran album Rio.
  • limited-edition serigraph of Joan Collins.
  • work appears in Smithsonian Institute, Bibliotheque des Arts Decoratifs, the Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts at U.C.L.A and the Library of Congress.
  • received numerous awards, including recognition from Graphis, Communication Arts and Art Direction.

Photos (1)

Patrick Nagel

Patrick Nagel