Mary Petty, Fay Modeling Ermine Cape, The New Yorker Magazine, cover illustration, January 10, 1953. Watercolor and ink on paper.
I’ve really enjoyed having the Mary Petty collection at the Gallery these last couple weeks. Often visitors to the gallery are awe-struck and contemplative. The affects of works may be playful, but works which are as humorous as the ones in this collection are rare. Seeing people laugh is delightful, the immediate response is refreshing and breaks up what might have otherwise been a solemn day of studious reflection.
Petty’s covers primarily feature the Upper-Class Peabody clan, and their maid Fay. Fay often elicits “Amelia Bedelia” impressions from visitors, and as Fay is to that stereotypical maid, so the Peabodys are to the monied world of the early 20th century, all pearl necklaces and artifacts of “cultural knowledge” – a rocco harpsichord for instance, or an opera on the television.
One of my favorite things about this exhibit in particular is the ability to see Mary Pettys development as an artist. All the covers are arranged chronologically, and the evolution and emergence of a style is really exciting to see. All the covers lined up also prompts thinking about the “Cover” as a form. There is always negative space at the top for the trade dressing, every canvas is exactly the same size, etcetera. The fact that Petty is able to have so much fun within these confines is remarkable. One of my favorites involves a bit of showing off on the artists part – Petty has the family sitting for a portrait (Fay is, of course, off in the background.) Petty details the artists canvas beautifully. Within this cover is a duplicate portrait in miniature, featuring a more impressionist style – “chic” for the time of the Peabodys. The delight Ms Petty takes in details like this is present in every cover, and it makes walking through the gallery a true joy.
The physicality of these paintings is also lovely. Our eyes are always drawn towards Fay. In a sea of warm and cool colors, her typical Black and White dress is striking. This discontinuity is even more striking in a cover from January 1953, where Fay is trying on Ms Peabodys ermine coat. She is dwarfed by it, and the image of a spritely caricature trying to match the silhouette. The image of Ms Peabody at the top of the staircase, only her head and arms visible, turns to highlight how similar the two women are, the effect of the accoutrements on each. More than that, her posture emulates the typical sight lines of each portrait. A scene of Fay trying to pry off the boot of a huntress, for example, has her almost horizontal, parallel to the woman’s leg.
The collection also includes several cartoons by Mary Pettys husband, Alan Dunn. These share a certain comedic sensibility with Petty, an amusement at the domestic, 5th avenue upperclass scene. The cartoon form, however, is different from the cover, less involved in detail and more focused on a singular, often captioned, punchline. Dunn has done his homework however, and his time in the American Institute at Rome and elsewhere overseas helps him infuse scenes of tourism and the art world with little particularities that help the wit sparkle.
As I mentioned before, I am overjoyed that the gallery is filled with so much delight, both in the covers and in the viewer. I’ll admit, I had some initial skepticism about this exhibit, but it has won me over after the last couple weeks. I will be sorry to see Ms Petty make an exit from the gallery and I strongly advise those of you who have not gotten the chance to see her work to make it in to the gallery before its gone!
– Chance Hogan (A20)
We thank the following for their continuous funding and support: Annapolis Subaru, Anne Arundel County, the Arts Council of Anne Arundel County, Chesapeake Medical Imaging and Mark Baganz and Laura Salladin, the City of Annapolis, Thomas P. Gohagan & Company, The Helena Foundation, the Maryland State Arts Council, the Estate of Elizabeth Myers Mitchell, the Mitchell Gallery Board of Advisors, Members of the Mitchell Gallery, Mrs. Ruth Mitchell, the John and Hilda Moore Fund, the Lillian Vanous Nutt Mitchell Gallery Endowment, Rex and Katharine Pingle and the Clare Eddy and Eugene V. Thaw Fine Arts Fund.
Gifts in-kind: Kathleen McSherry, Merrifeld Graphics and Publishing Service and Up.St.ART
The Mitchell Gallery is open Tuesday through Sunday from noon to 5.00 pm
theGallery is open 6:45 to 7:45 on Fridays, before the college’s weekly lecture.
Docent tours are available from noon to 3 pm on Thursdays.