Mary Petty

Added on by Doug Dowd.

(1899-1976) American Illustrator and Cartoonist.

Mary Petty became known for a series of New Yorker covers which narrate escapades in a fictional Manhattan family called the Peabodys. Her drawings focus particularly on a maid named Fay. In addition to her covers, Petty also published many interior cartoons–38 of the former, compared with 273 of the latter, to be precise.

"The world that Mary Petty created in her cartoons was one of wealth and privilege--the upper-class families occupying the stately Victorian brownstone homes of Manhattan--and her sly pen captured both the grace and the vacuity of the class," writes Dennis Wepman.

"Often wry illustrations rather than traditional gag cartoons, many needed no captions, making their point with their expressive line. Her men were effete and rather dim, or else pompous and arrogant; her women were generally complacent or imperious; her settings were stiflingly stuffy and cluttered. Middle-aged women were favorite targets of her satire, but what her New York Times obituary called her "sometimes caustic commentary on the upper class" was usually gentle and even a bit affectionate in its humor."

Petty's detailed inking, precise watercolor washes, and beautifully constructed compositions were admired by many. James Thurber (of Walter Mitty fame, a mainstay at the New Yorker) wrote an essay ("Mary Petty and her Drawings") for the book This Petty Place, in which he professed to know very little about her–testifying to her tremendous reticence. She seems to have remained a bit of mystery, even once established at the magazine. 

After graduating from the Horace Mann School in New York City in 1922, Mary Petty married Alan Dunn, then recently established as a cartoonist for The New Yorker, in 1927. Shockingly prolific, he published 1,914 cartoons between 1926 and 1974, when he died. 

The Dunn and Petty papers are housed at Syracuse University. 

Mary Petty, cover illustration for The New Yorker. April 10, 1943.

Mary Petty, cover illustration for The New Yorker. March 14, 1942.

Mary Petty, cover illustration for The New Yorker. July 18, 1942.