American artist and writer Peggy Bacon (1895–1987) was primarily known for her witty caricatures and satires of famous figures of the 1920s and 1930s. She wrote and illustrated numerous books, illustrated dozens of books by others, and produced drawings, paintings, pastels, and prints. She worked as a graphic artist and contributor to numerous magazines, taught for more than thirty years, and won numerous awards and honors.
Bacon enjoyed a long and distinguished career. Best known for her humorous caricatures and good–natured satires of the famous and infamous of her day, she also wrote and illustrated numerous children's books and books of short stories and poetry. She worked as a graphic designer and published her work in magazines such as Vanity Fair, Harper's Bazaar, Mademoiselle, Dial, Vogue, The New Yorker, and The Yale Review. She illustrated some forty books by others and had a teaching career that spanned more than thirty years. Her drawings, paintings, and prints were frequently exhibited across the nation (27 one–person shows in New York alone), and her output was prolific. She produced many prints of her etchings, lithographs, and drypoints (her favorite medium), countless drawings, and more than 100 pastels (including 35 caricatures). Her work is housed in many museums, including the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Brooklyn Museum.
Margaret Frances (Peggy) Bacon was born on May 2, 1895 to Charles Roswell Bacon and Elizabeth Chase Bacon, both artists, in Ridgefield, Connecticut. Her father painted landscapes and figures and her mother was a miniaturist. Bacon had two younger brothers who both died in infancy, so she was raised an only child. She had a close relationship with her parents, who were both well read and shared with Bacon their love of art and fine things. She and her parents spent several winters in New York, and her father, whose work was exhibited in the city, took Bacon to many galleries. During 1904 to 1906, Bacon lived in France, mostly in Montreuil–sur–Mer but also in Paris and Pas de Calais, and for a brief time in London. In an interview with Paul Cummings for the Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Art, Bacon recalled that, though her family was not affluent, "We had an extraordinary amount of amenities and delicacies even and delights, considering that they were poverty–stricken. The food was marvelous, very gourmet food. And there were quantities of books, endless books arriving."
Bacon had a somewhat sheltered youth and was usually accompanied by a governess, except for the winter of 1902, which she spent in Nassau, Bermuda. On the boat going over, her mother contracted typhoid fever and was delirious by the time they arrived. Seven–year–old Bacon had no one to take care of her. Her father and grandmother arrived not long after, but they were soon quarantined with her mother, and Bacon took advantage of her freedom and explored the island. In Nassau she found other children to play with, which was different from her regular routine of living with her parents, many of whose friends were childless.
A Precocious Talent
Bacon began drawing early (around eighteen months), and was writing and illustrating books by the age of ten. Her mother did not believe in school so Bacon had tutors, but she studied only subjects that interested her: Latin, Greek, mythology, ancient geography, and ancient history. It was not until the age of fourteen, when wealthy family friends paid for her to attend boarding school—the Kent Place School in Summit, New Jersey—that she learned mathematics. She graduated in 1913, at which time she chose to study art. It was also in 1913 that her father committed suicide. He had overcome alcoholism using hypnosis, but had experienced subsequent bouts of suicidal depression, which eventually led to his death.
At age 18, Bacon was sent to the School of Applied Design for Women. She did not like the school, and after a few weeks refused to return. The next year Bacon took a landscape class on Long Island with Jonas Lie. The following winter she enrolled in the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts and continued taking private classes with Lie, who arranged for her first one–person exhibition in 1915. Bacon studied at the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts until 1915, when she began at the Art Students League, where her parents had met. There, from 1915 to 1920, she trained under George Bellows, Kenneth Hayes Miller, Andrew Dasburg, and John Sloan, the latter of whom was a great influence on her. In 1915 she caught the measles and returned home to Ridgefield, where, under quarantine, she wrote her first book The True Philosopher and Other Cat Tales.
First Book Published, Held First Major Show
During the summers of 1915 and 1916, Bacon studied painting in the seaside town of Provincetown, Massachusetts, under Charles W. Hawthorne and B. J. O. Nordfeldt, respectively. It was in 1917, however, that Bacon taught herself drypoint, a printmaking technique in which the artist uses a sharp stylus to draw directly on a copper plate, creating a "burr" of copper on each side as scoring through the metal occurs. The burr holds additional ink during the printing process, which provides a unique velvety richness to the finished print. It was a style for which she would become famous. In 1919 she served as the assistant editor at the Art Students League of a spoof publication, Bad News, whose editor was Edmund Duffy. Meanwhile, World Magazine published some of Bacon's drypoints. The True Philosopher and Other Cat Tales, which included thirteen early drypoints, was published in 1919. Her drypoints were also shown at the Painter–Gravers of America and the Society of Independent Artists, both in New York. That summer Bacon attended summer school in Woodstock, New York, where she and fellow student Alexander Brook, whom she had gotten to know the previous year at the Art Students League, fell in love and became engaged.
On May 4, 1920, Bacon and Brook married. They moved to London, where their daughter, Belinda, was born. They soon returned to the United States, settling near Woodstock, New York. Bacon and Brook both became active in the Woodstock artist colony up to the mid–1920s. Bacon abandoned painting in favor of black–and–white drawing and drypoint, and in 1922 Bacon's first major drypoint show was held at the Joseph Brummer Gallery in New York, part of a joint show with her husband, who exhibited his paintings. That same year their second child, Alexander Brook, Jr. (Sandy), was born. Adding to the eventfulness of 1919, William Murrell published Peggy Bacon, the first monograph on the artist. After 1923 Bacon and her family began living in New York City, but usually spent summers elsewhere.
Won National Attention
New Republic magazine purchased the print and plate for Bacon's drypoint "The Promenade Deck," in 1924 and published it in a portfolio, Six American Etchings, which included the etchings of artists John Sloan, Kenneth Hayes Miller, John Marin, Ernest Haskell, and Edward Hopper's "Night Shadows." In 1925, Bacon had two one–person exhibitions at the Montross Galleries and her second book, Funerealities, was published by Aldergate. It was a collection of her poems and drypoints. The Philadelphia Sesquicentennial Exposition, Department of Fine Arts, awarded her its bronze medal in 1926. A year later Bacon became one of the original 12 members of the American Printmakers group and Macmillan published The Lion–Hearted Kitten and Other Stories, a children's book written and illustrated by Bacon. At this time Bacon began drawing satirical color portraits using pastels (she produced almost 100 pastels in her life, including 35 caricatures).
In 1928, Bacon mounted a one–person exhibit at The Intimate Gallery in New York, created by Alfred Stieglitz. She also saw the publication of Mercy and the Mouse and Other Stories by Macmillan. In that same year she produced her first lithographs. Lithographs are created when the artist draws directly on a flat stone or prepared metal plate with a greasy crayon, then dampens and inks the surface, causing the ink to be repelled from the wet areas but to stick to the greasy areas, which is then transferred to paper. While she experimented with her art, Bacon continued to write, publishing The Ballad of Tangle Street with Macmillan. The same year she executed her first etchings. The process involves covering a metal (usually copper) plate with a resinous, acid–resistant substance (called "the ground"), over which the artist then draws with a sharp needle, removing the ground in those areas. The plate is then placed in an acid bath, which eats away the exposed lines, or etches them. Once the plate is inked and wiped, ink is left in the etched grooves. The plate is placed on damp paper and put through a printing press, forcing the paper into the inky grooves. Bacon made numerous prints of her etchings in the 1930s.
Won Guggenheim Fellowship
During this time, Bacon also worked as a commercial artist. She illustrated and wrote for many magazines, including Vanity Fair. In 1931, Bacon's The Terrible Nuisance and Other Tales and Animosities, both of which she wrote and illustrated, were published by Harcourt. That summer she and her family moved to Europe to live for the summer on a travel fellowship her husband had won from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. They had been spending summers in Cross River, Westchester County, New York, since 1927, and—except for their time in Europe—continued to do so until 1937. In 1933 Harcourt published Mischief in Mayfield. It was the next year in which Bacon received her own Guggenheim fellowship. She became the first person who was permitted to use the money for purposes other than travel, choosing instead to fund work on the 39 black–and–white satirical portraits that she collected in Off With Their Heads!, published by McBride the same year. She then began a project for the New Republic, producing a series of caricatures of prominent Washington, D.C. figures, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt and other New Dealers. She did caricatures for other magazines as well, such as Stage (Noel Coward) and American Mercury. McBride published Bacon's Cat–Calls in 1935, a book which Bacon both wrote and illustrated. In this year she also began teaching at the Art Students League.
In addition to her stint at the Art Students League, Bacon taught at several other places, including Fieldston School, the School for Social Research, Stella Elkins Tyler in Philadelphia, the School of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., New York's progressive preparatory school Birch Wathen, and Hunter College. She also taught at two summer camps and spent three summers at the School of Music and Art in Stowe, Vermont.
In 1938 Bacon and her husband separated, and they finalized their divorce in 1940. The Associated American Artists held a major retrospective of Bacon's work and the National Academy of Arts and Letters gave her a grant of $1,000 to further her creative endeavors in 1942. In 1945, Starting from Scratch, written and illustrated by Bacon, was published by Messner. Bacon was awarded the American Artists Group Alan Dunn Prize in 1952 for "All Together," a drypoint piece. In the same year she experimented with another art medium, beginning to create water–based mixed–media pieces. Bacon stopped printmaking in 1953, but from 1950 to 1970 she wrote and illustrated another six books of her own, illustrated more than twenty books written by others, and also wrote a mystery novel, The Inward Eye, that won the 1953 Edgar Allan Poe Mystery Award for best novel. She was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1956, holding the post of vice president in 1960 and 1962. She returned to oil painting in 1958.
In December 1961 Bacon moved to Cape Porpoise, Maine, to be near her son and his family. The National Academy of Design awarded her a certificate of merit in 1963. Despite a serious degradation of her vision, she continued painting, mainly scenes of rural daily life. Her final lithograph was published in 1975, the same year a retrospective exhibit of her work was held at the Smithsonian's National Collection of Fine Arts, which made her the first living woman to be given a retrospective there. In 1980 Bacon won the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Gold Medal for her lifelong contribution to illustration and graphic art. She died at the age of 92 in Cape Porpoise on January 4, 1987.
Flint, Janet A., Peggy Bacon's Prints: A Checklist of the Prints, Alan Wofsy Fine Arts, 2001.
Cummings, Paul, "Interview with Peggy Bacon, May 9, 1973," Smithsonian Archives of American Art,http://archivesofamericanart.si.edu/oralhist/bacon73.htm (January 8, 2005).
Flint, Janet A., "Peggy Bacon's Prints: A Checklist of the Prints," ArtBooks.com, http://www.art-books.com/artbooks/images/pdfs/Book–Bacon–PN–t.pdf (January 8, 2005).
"Peggy Bacon, Artist," Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, http://search.famsf.org:8080/view.shtml?keywords=canvas&artist;=&country;=.=&sort;=&start;=1&position;=4&record;=28830 (January 8, 2005).
"Peggy Bacon," George Glazer Gallery,http://www.georgeglazer.com/prints/art20c/kennebunk.html (January 8, 2005).
Stuber, Irene, "Women of Achievement and Herstory," http://www.undelete.org/woa/woa05-05.html (January 8, 2005).