When many people think of Pin-Up Art from the 1940s and 50s in this day and age, they often will think of Alberto Vargas’s work, which goes from the classic PinUp look to the dawn of the Playboy style art. Or perhaps the more well known Gil Elvgren who's work appears in calendars at book stores today. Most people who are familiar with pinups will say they know of Olivia, the modern pinup artist. However, if you were to ask someone from World War 2 into the early 50s, you’ll find they remember a different type of PinUp: The Petty Girl. The Petty Girl was not just art for the fancy of men in magazines, but she was a symbol for a homesick GIs at war and a metaphor for the innocence of the times. The Petty Girl captured the classic PinUp look that has, in my opinion, never been matched since and it’s all due to one talented artist, George Petty.
George Petty was arguable one of the world's greatest Pinup artists of all time. Helping to catapult the pinup from just paintings of pretty women to a nationwide sensation, Petty's artwork (known better as the 'Petty Girls') defined an era before Playboy when innocence and the girl next door defined the pinup style. Petty, born in 1894, spent most of his life in Chicago. Petty grew up around Photography from his father George Petty III, a photographer at the time with his own studio. It was in his father’s studio that he learned how to Airbrush his first pieces of art. Wanting to continue his studies in art after High School, Petty went to the Paris Académie Julian to further study his love of art under the direction of Jean-Paul Laurens until the breakout of World War 1. Returning to Chicago, he gained status as an airbrush retoucher and freelance artist, painting the covers of magazines and calendar gals in the early 1920s. It was in 1933 when he joined the men’s magazine Esquire along with opening his own studio in 1926 that the Petty Girl was born.
The Petty Girl had been around in one for or another as Petty created cartoons for a publication, but she didn't become a nationwide icon until Petty joined Esquire Magazine. Petty began painting middle spreads and calendars for the magazine on a regular basis during the late 30s and more popularly the 1940s. Showcasing an innocence and playful side in a time where America was exiting the Depression and entering World War 2, the Petty Girl became a symbol of the happier American lifestyle, even if it was geared towards appealing men. The Petty Girl was defined by often subtlety disproportioned legs being longer than normal to accentuate the curves of women’s legs, and their heads slightly smaller to give the body a slightly larger look. These slight exaggerations set the Petty Girl apart from any Pinups at the time, and set a new standard for the rising type of art. The Petty Girl was almost always on the phone, a feature which many became the gag among many jokes about who she was always talking to on the other end. The Petty Girl was always innocent, sometimes not even noticing her sex appeal, and often gave the feel of a ‘Girl Next Door’ type of warm inviting smile. One major note to point out is the Petty Girl’s modesty; she never revealed everything but chose to tease. George Petty was a genius in capturing that fine line between too little and too much, choosing to have the Petty Girl always somehow covered where it counts. Be it a shine from a sheer dress or an outstretched arm, the Petty Girl never gave away too much.
The Petty Girl was well loved in the United States, but soon she would head off to war with millions of servicemen. During World War 2, the United States was thrust into combat on two fronts: The European Theater and the Pacific Theater. Millions of men from across the country were sworn into service and sent abroad to fight for America after the tragic bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. For many of these American men, it was their first time away from home, and most were just reaching 18 and 19 years old. Naturally, with the PinUp in both art and photography booming in that era, the PinUp traveled with these boys and covered the walls of their makeshift homes on the battle fields giving them a pleasant reminder of what’s waiting for them back home. Photos of top name celebrities to artwork from all types of artists at the time, the PinUp was kept near and dear to the GI soldier and often helped him drift off to sleep giving him a boost of moral when he needed it most. Petty’s artwork filled many of the foot lockers and walls of the barracks in many parts of the war, but there was one specific area where Petty’s art stood out and started one of the biggest artistic movements in the war: Nose Art. One of the most recognizable forms of Petty’s work, Nose Art wasn’t even done by Petty himself but was rather copies of his work done by other artists.
The first recorded Nose Art painting was done in 1913 before the breakout of World War 1. Starting out as a way for friendly pilots to identify each other and personalize their planes, Nose Art was the painting of some graphic on the forward section (or nose) of the aircraft. As World War 1 raged, Nose Art became more extravagant, but still focused on fancy squadron art. It wasn’t till World War 2 that the true Nose Art was born. From the popular subject of animals to squadron insignia and symbols, cartoon characters to real life people, the appeal of Nose Art has often been said to be both the subject on the art and the ‘unofficially’ accepted yet ‘officially’ discouraged status it held. During the height of World War 2, Nose Art artists were in high demand in every Army Air Force squadron (Nose Art was prohibited on US Navy Aircraft), with Army Air Force commanders allowing the nose Art in an effort to boost crew morale. Nose Art found its way on Bombers, Fighters, Cargo aircraft, and everything in between. Some where elaborate, some were minimal, but it was here that the PinUp art took part in the war. The PinUp Nose Art became a fast favorite for pilots and their crews, with every major PinUp artist’s work featured in every imaginable variation on the nose of thousands of aircraft. Often painted by civilian artists or the occasional talented servicemen, the Petty Girl was soon taking to the skies and heading closer and closer to Germany and Japan with each battle.
One of the most famous Petty Nose Art works of all time was a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress which carried the name ‘Memphis Belle.’ The Memphis Belle and her crew became celebrity heroes back home upon being one of the first crews to complete 25 missions in Europe, which was at the time the service required for the crewmen to get a ticket back home (this was later increased to 50 missions). Upon completion of the 25 missions, the crew was sent home, with the Memphis Belle to do a multi state tour drive in support of buying War Bonds. The Nose Art on the Memphis Belle was one of Petty’s works featured in Esquire Magazine in April of 1941, which was selected by George Petty himself at the request of the Belle Pilot, Robert Morgan. The Memphis Belle grew in fame as a result of this tour, and a documentary type of movie was made on the plane and crew in 1944 and a Hollywood feature film in 1990. Through the years and wars and even to this day, many aircraft carry on the name and Nose Art of the Memphis Belle in the US Air Force to continue the tradition. Currently, a Lockheed C-5 Galaxy and Boeing B-52 Superfortress carry the ‘Memphis Belle X’ and ‘Memphis Belle IV’ (respectively) names along with Petty’s now immortalized artwork.
Petty continued to produce Petty Girls for Esquire until the early 1940s when Petty left over a dispute about rights and money with his artwork. Esquire then hired Alberto Vargas to take Petty's place, originally having him create pinups that matched the same style as Petty. Even Vargas's signature resembled that of Petty's, but this time Esquire made sure to own everything Vargas did. At this point, the Petty Girl had exploded in fame, in what seemed like no time at all. Used in everything from advertising to film posters, the Petty Girl was famous nationwide. Even the Janzen company created a 'Petty Girl' swimsuit and there were even 'Petty Panties' created and advertised with Petty Girls. In 1942, a special honor was bestowed on Petty when over 3,000 Chicago High School students cast votes for the most important artist during their years of art studies in which Petty won first place, as a write-in! Petty's work continued to grace nation wide exposure as he produced a cover for TIME Magazine and numerous other advertising ads in magazines all over the country. In the early 40s, Petty was contracted to produce the covers for the famous Ice Capades revue, a recurring job that Petty held for many years.
Petty's work didn't slow down during the end of the 1940s and going into the 1950s, if anything it sped up. Doing art for the famous 1946 'Ziegfield Follies' and joining True Magazine in 1945 where he produced annual gatefolds in the magazine. Petty's artwork appeared on everything from playing cards to drinking glasses, matchbook covers to even hood ornaments on cars of which Petty designed in the mid 1950s. In 1953 Petty partnered with Ridge Tools to create a series of calendars featuring the Petty Girl in Rosie the Riveter style work outfits with various machine parts produced by Ridge Tools. Petty returned briefly to Esquire magazine in 1955 to create a series of calendars for them as well, producing some of his best known and most loved Petty Girls. Petty continued to produce new Petty Girls and contract his older ones with new companies and products until his 'retirement' in the late 1950s.
Petty enjoyed the rest of his life in California and produced one last Pinup shortly before his death in 1975 following a revival of sorts of the pinup when a 40th anniversary issue of Esquire had a spread on the 1940s with Petty's work. The last Petty Girl was produced in 1974 for a charity function and featured a bare Petty Girl not sure about what to wear to the charity event. While Petty was gone, his Pinups lived on through the hearts of many who grew up with Petty Girls on their walls. Sadly, the era of Pinups ended as Playboy came about with the new pinup being a photograph instead of a painting. What most people don't realize is that Playboy was actually inspired by a Petty Girl, which led the way for the magazine's birth. But with the death of the traditional pinup, Petty's name slipped away for the future generations and the pinup had all but disappeared from the world until a major revival in the late 1990s and retro pinup photography exploded. While Petty remains relatively unknown to most of the world in this day and age, The Petty Girl makes appearances now and then, mostly at antique shows and on ebay, but is often snatched up quickly and for high prices. It goes to show that Petty created some lasting piece of art that is the Petty Girls and captured a time when women could wear clothing and still be sexy.