Bacon, Peggy (1895–1987)
Bacon, Peggy (1895–1987)
American artist and illustrator, much admired for the wit, charm and plainspoken honesty in her drypoint caricatures and satirical glimpses of New Yorkers. Name variations: Peggy B. Brook (legally since 1920). Born Margaret Frances Bacon on May 2, 1895, in Ridgefield, Connecticut; died on January 4, 1987, in Kennebunk, Maine; daughter of Elizabeth (Chase) Bacon and Charles Roswell Bacon (both artists); graduated from Kent Place School, Summit, New Jersey, 1913; attended School of Applied Arts for Women, New York, 1913#2013;14; New York School of Fine and Applied Arts, 1914–15; studied painting at Art Students' League, New York, 1915–20; studied painting under various instructors at Provincetown, Massachusetts, and Woodstock, New York; married Alexander Brook, in 1920 (divorced 1940); children: Belinda Bacon (b. 1920), Alexander "Sandy" Brook (b. 1922).
Taught at Art Students League, New York (1935, 1949–51), School of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (1942–44), Fieldston Ethical Cultural School, Bronx (1933–38), Moore College of Art, Philadelphia (1963–64), and other schools. Works are in the collections of Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, Museum of Modern Art, New York; Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn; Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, and many other museums and private collections.
bronze medal, Philadelphia Sesquicentennial Exposition, Department of Fine Arts (1926); John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship (1934); National Academy of Arts and Letters grant (1944); named an Associate of the National Academy of Design (1947); first prize, Second Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Drawings; American Artists Group Alan Dunn Prize from the Society of American Graphic Artists at 36th Annual Exhibition (1952); Edgar Allan Poe Special Award for mystery novel, The Inward Eye by the Mystery Writers of America (1953); American Artists Prize, Butler Institute (Youngstown, Ohio, 1955); elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1956); certificate of merit, National Academy of Design (1963); honorary degree of DFA, Moore College of Art, Temple University, Philadelphia (1964); honorary degree, Nasson College, Springvale, Maine (1975); gold medal, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (1980).
The True Philosopher and Other Cat Tales, Funerealities, The Lion-Hearted King, Mercy and the Mouse, The Ballad of Tangle Street, The Terrible Nuisance and Other Tales, Animosities, Mischief in Mayfield, Off With Their Heads!, Cat-Calls, The Mystery at East Hatchett, Starting from Scratch, The Inward Eye, The Good American Witch, The Oddity, The Ghost of Opalina, and The Magic Touch. Illustrator: T. Robinson's Buttons (Viking, 1938); T.S. Eliot's The Hollow Men (1925); Carl Sandberg's Rootabaga Country (1929), and many others; illustrations published in The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Town and Country, among others.
An author, illustrator, poet, and writer, Peggy Bacon was most well known for her satirical, though affectionate, caricatures of the famous and not-so-famous in and around New York, including some of Manhattan's toughest alley cats. By the time she published Off With Their Heads in 1934, she had gained a reputation as a sharp wit, publishing her illustrations in such popular magazines as The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and Town and Country. But Bacon could just as easily turn her pen on herself. Consider this self-description in that 1934 book:
Pin head, parsimoniously covered with thin dark hair, on a short dumpy body. Small features, prominent nose, chipmunk teeth and no chin, conveying the sharp, weak look of a little rodent. Absent-minded eyes with a half glimmer of observation. Prim, critical mouth and faint coloring. Personality lifeless, retiring, snippy, quietly egotistical. Lacks vigor and sparkle.
One writer felt that Bacon put forth this unflattering self-portrait "purely in self defense—a weapon of words to ward off potential howls of protest from others described in the book." By 1935, she no longer did scathing caricatures because of the reaction of those depicted; she was not comfortable causing discomfort to others. "I couldn't stand getting under people's skins," she told an interviewer in 1943, "the caricatures made them smart so."
Born the daughter of two artists on May 2, 1895, in Ridgefield, Connecticut, Peggy Bacon enjoyed a childhood of imaginative and varied experiences. Her father Charles Roswell Bacon was a painter of landscapes, figures and murals, having studied in New York, Paris, and Giverny, France. Her mother Elizabeth Chase Bacon , who met her husband while studying at the Art Students League in New York, was a painter of miniatures. Peggy was raised as an only child; her two younger brothers died in infancy. Neither parent taught Bacon to paint but provided the materials and experiences to foster her talent. According to family lore, Peggy began to draw at 18 months, before she was able to talk. Early on, she included illustrations and drawings with her poems and letters to her family, foreshadowing the descriptive imagery and reportorial style associated with her mature work.
As the child of working artists who were forever searching for new subjects to paint, Bacon traveled a great deal in her early years. Her family lived in Nassau, Bahamas, during the winter of 1902–03, when it was still a lush, unspoiled tropical island. From Nassau, the Bacons traveled to New Hampshire for the summer, where Peggy met and was encouraged in her art by Lucia Fairchild Fuller , a noted artist of that time. Bacon's father was a lover of all things French and returned there with his family in 1904 to live for two years at Montreuil-Sur-Mer. At this time, Peggy attended a French school, traveled briefly to London, and sketched. In 1909, back in America, she attended boarding school at Kent Place School in Summit, New Jersey, while her parents lived and worked in New York City. Bacon excelled in French, Latin, and Greek, and creative writing.
In February 1913, she attended the Armory Show in New York City with her father. This exhibit was a turning point in American art and the public's initial rejection of the contemporary styles was astounding. Both Bacons enjoyed the work of the Impressionists but were baffled by some of the other paintings and sculptures. Neither felt the "moderns" had much to offer. As time passed, Bacon's work would take a contemporary turn in style, becoming far more abstract in line and color.
That June, Bacon was accepted at Smith College in Massachusetts where she planned to continue her classical studies; later that summer, however, she decided she would rather follow her compulsion to study art. Writes biographer Roberta Tarbell : "Her parents wept; as artists themselves they understood the hardships that she would face." Bacon started her higher education at the School for Applied Arts for Women in New York. Shortly thereafter, on October 9, depressed by the lack of patrons and the dearth of critical attention to his paintings, Charles Bacon killed himself in his studio. It took courage for Peggy to return to her art studies, but in November she reappeared in her classes, her expenses paid by friends of the family.
Fuller, Lucia Fairchild (1870–1924)
American artist. Name variations: Mrs. Henry Brown Fuller. Born Lucia Fairchild in 1870; died in 1924; grew up in Madison, Wisconsin; attended Cowles Art School in Boston, studying under Dennis Bunker; studied in New York with William Merritt Chase and H. Siddons Mowbray; married Henry Brown Fuller (an artist), in 1893 (separated); children: two.
Known for her talent and originality, Lucia Fairchild Fuller helped rekindle the dying art of miniature painting around the turn of the century, a medium suffering from the advent of photography. In 1899, she co-founded the American Society of Miniature Painters, along with William Baer, I.A. Josephi, and Laura Coombs Hill . Fuller had also created a mural for the Woman's Building of the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.
In 1914–15, Bacon studied life drawing with George Graecen and illustration with Howard Giles at the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts (later known as the Parson's School of Design). During the summer of 1914, she also studied oil painting with the artist Jonas Lie in Port Jefferson, Long Island. Though Lie commented on her rapid progress, pleasing designs,
and "luscious colors," she destroyed these oils and none survive. That fall, Bacon worked in gouache and tempera (water-based painting mediums) in a private class with Lie in New York. The following year, Lie sponsored her first one-woman show, which sold out, and would finance her first year of study at the Art Students League in 1915–16.
Bacon spent part of the next three summers in Provincetown, Massachusetts, a well-known summer art colony, studying painting with Charles Hawthorne, and B.J.O. Norfeldt. She was enthusiastic about Norfeldt's work, even though she, like most people, were still not thrilled with the "moderns." She was stimulated by the presence of older and well-established artists at the colony, such as Marsden Hartley and Charles Demuth, and attended performances of the newly formed Provincetown Players, initiated by Eugene O'Neill, Edna St. Vincent Millay , John Reed and Louise Bryant . In 1917, Bacon studied landscape painting with E. Ambrose Webster and became acquainted with the works of Monet, an artist who greatly influenced her father but whose work she found "flat, uninteresting, and out of date." She thought Manet and Degas, however, were "modern in spirit."
A student at the Art Students League from October 1915 through May 1920, Bacon studied with many of America's foremost artists of the 20th century: George Bellows, John Sloan, Max Weber, and Kenneth Hayes Miller. Her drypoint of 1918, The Bellows Class (Guild Hall collection, East Hampton, New York), shows a sympathy with the avant-garde of the New York art world, through her use of physical distortion of figures, and large, flat areas of light and dark. Though she preferred caricatures to standard portrait painting, Bellows' portraiture class focused her attention; she found the art form in harmony with her own temperament and pursued it for over 20 years. John Sloan's influence was in life drawing, sketches, and composition. Since her reporting style and candid humor was similar to Sloan's philosophy, she was enthusiastic about his work and his teaching. Several of her drypoint prints are scenes of his classes, such as John Sloan's Lecture (Guild Hall) and John Sloan's Night Class.
Back then, printmaking was not being taught at the Art Students League, so Bacon taught herself the drypoint technique, using a heavy steel needle to cut a line into a zinc plate which, when inked, makes duplicate prints. She and another student used an old press in one of the drawing studios and made prints, working the press together. This medium became the primary expression of her ideas. In 1920–21, she took a class in etching in order to have access to the printing presses, primarily working alone, with occasional critiques by faculty members.
In 1919, Bacon's drypoints had been exhibited in two national shows and reproduced for the first time in World Magazine. A Boston publisher, Four Seas, printed her first book The True Philosopher and other Cat Tales, which she had written in 1915 while sick with the measles. Though the majority of her training was in painting, her drypoints had been published, exhibited, and were recognized more often. Bacon had discovered that her best arena was in the humorous representation of human interaction. She told Tarbell that her ambition was to show what the world looked like around her, a goal realized as early as 1920.
In 1918, Peggy Bacon had met her future husband, Alexander Brook, in the lunchroom of the Art Students League, the scene of many of her early prints. They married in New York in early 1920 and left for England that August, living for the next nine months in Chelsea, London. Their first child Belinda was born in December of 1920. The following spring, the couple traveled to Paris with friends and spent their time in galleries and museums, but neither of their styles seemed to be changed by the modern art they saw there. Bacon found she could not work as well in Europe, as her work needed American friends and subject matter to give it life. She wrote to her family that she was looking forward to returning home to paint but, in reality, did not paint again for over 30 years. Her husband, who was a painter with a developed sense of color and form, was highly critical of her painting. Since her drypoint technique was so successful, she stuck with it and continued to create and publish more artwork. A notable print from this period is The Promenade Deck, the result of various sketches made on board the S.S. New Amsterdam, drawings of "people who amused her with their individual ways." Her composition began with curving lines that outlined the 40 people, including her husband and herself on deck, then areas of fabric patterns were placed in the interior spaces, resulting in flattened figures that are less angular than in her earlier work. The print was purchased in 1924 by the New Republic for a subscriber promotion.
The Brooks family returned from Europe to a farm outside Woodstock, New York, purchased for them by Bacon's mother, but the distance to the village and the lack of childcare prevented Peggy from associating with the local artists until an automobile allowed more freedom of movement. The art community in Woodstock was large and diverse, and both Bacon and her husband were active in showing their work in the town's galleries; they were also the subject of monographs published by William Murrell in his Younger Artists series in 1922. That year, they moved into the town where their second child Alexander was born.
In 1924, the family moved to New York, where Peggy had several one-woman shows over the next two years. She was then writing and publishing poems and fine line-drawings with a dreamlike quality, the most noted being Funerealities in 1925. She also began to publish stories for children, building on the storytelling tradition gleaned from her father. Among these were The Lion-hearted Kitten (1927) and The Ballad of Tangle Street (1929). For many years, Bacon was one of the foremost American illustrators, not only of children's literature, but also for adult magazines such as Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. Her work included groups of people involved in daily life as it had while she was in school, but now the compositions had more open space and were more softly drawn satirical interpretations. In the summer of 1926, the family purchased a home in Westchester County, New York, where they spent summers until 1937. Her work of this period often depicted friends in their homes and gatherings of artists, such as A Few Ideas (1927).
In 1928, Bacon began to make lithographs, using a technique of lithograph pencil on specially coated paper that is transferred to a zinc plate, inked and printed. These transfer lithos do not usually have the texture or rich tone of a lithograph drawn directly on stone, but her drawings retained their witty character. According to Tarbell, "The cat she shows in Lunch No. 1-Hors D'Oeuvres, 1928, is one of the funniest felines in the history of art—it evokes the spontaneous amusement that accompanies Peggy Bacon's best works." Bacon also made etchings, a technique employing a fine line that is etched into the surface of a metal plate using an acid bath, inking the plate and printing. Her etching, Peter Platt Printing (1929), shows a sensitive modulated line with a narrow range of values. Each December, Bacon would display her work in the American Printmakers Exhibit in New York.
Both professionally successful, Bacon and Brook were not affected financially by the Depression of the '20s. Bacon had household help and her children attended private school. In 1931, Bacon traveled to Europe with her husband who was awarded a Guggenheim Traveling Fellowship, enabling them to spend weeks in the vast museums studying masterworks. Her drypoint and lithograph, both entitled Aesthetic Pleasure, published in 1936 (Guild Hall), poke fun at American tourists in a European gallery; even in Europe, Bacon's arena was the American view. From 1933 to 1935, she taught children drawing and composition at one of the most progressive schools in the country, the Fieldston Ethical Cultural School in the Bronx, New York.
From 1927 to 1945, Bacon worked in pastel, her first foray into color since her painting days as a student. She felt that pastel was a natural extension of her drawing and printmaking, enabling her to use color without having to deal with a totally different medium. She did not follow the techniques of those pastellists she considered the greatest, such as Degas, but began working in neutral colors to emphasize the character of the portrait rather than the beauty. She progressed to some monochromatic themes, working from one color-range only. Her group of 100 caricatures done between 1927 and 1934 are "unique in American art," writes Tarbell, "representing the highest level of her brilliant combination of penetrating and devastating wit and fine draftsmanship." Between 1919 and 1966, Peggy Bacon illustrated more than 60 books, 17 of which she wrote herself.
In 1934, a John Simon Guggenheim fellowship resulted in 39 satirical portraits in black-and-white pastel of artists, politicians, and notables in the news, accompanied by written vignettes. Off With Their Heads, her best-known publication, established her reputation as America's leading caricaturist. Bacon felt that a successful caricature "heightens and intensifies to the point of absurdity all the subject's most striking attributes; … a comic interpretation of a person not only recognizable to those familiar with the subject but also convincing to those who are not."
After 1937, Bacon began to do genre pictures in pastel. Divided into four areas, the 60 scenes include Manhattan Genre (scenes of New York), Manhattan Cats, Life on the Maine Coast, and Summer Folks, Provincetown. The portraits of scrawny Manhattan Cats are some of Bacon's finest and most original works, but the scenes are soft anecdotes, not the biting satire of her pastel portraits. As popular as her portraits were, these pastel drawings may be her most important contribution to the history of American art.
After Bacon and Brook separated in 1938 and divorced in 1940, she began to spend her summers in Maine or at Cape Cod. She taught more extensively than she had in the past, at such schools as the Art Students League, Temple University in Philadelphia, and the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. She exhibited less often but had a major retrospective of her work staged by The Associated American Artists in 1942, called Pens and Needles, a title that Bacon truly felt "identified the biting and subtle innuendoes of her work, in which she poked fun for a quarter of a century at her friends, herself, and the great mass of American men and women."
Abandoning drypoint and prints, Bacon returned to painting in the 1950s and limited herself to painting after 1955. In 1960, she was honored by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters with their gold medal in recognition, said The New York Times, of "her long and impressive career as a graphic artist and illustrator." She also found a new venue. Her book The Inward Eye, a highly successful mystery novel, received the Edgar Allan Poe Mystery Award in 1953.
In later years, Bacon's work moved to landscapes and abstractions of familiar scenes. Laughter was no longer a primary goal, though many humorous details remained. The paintings have a quality of fantasy, as can be seen in both The Wraith (1961), a depiction of an apparition in a cemetery, and A Quiet Street (1971), a street scene where the few figures have no interaction. In 1975, the artist was recognized with a yearlong retrospective exhibit, Peggy Bacon: Personalities and Places, at the Smithsonian Institution National Collection of Fine Arts in Washington, D.C.
In 1961, Bacon had moved to Cape Porpoise, Maine, to be closer to her son, an editor and owner of a newspaper in Kennebunk. Late in her life, though nearly blind, she had continued to paint in a well-lit room during the day, using a magnifying glass. "It was so natural to her it was like breathing," noted Tarbell. Peggy Bacon died, age 91, on January 4, 1987, in Kennebunk, Maine.
Murrell, William, ed. Peggy Bacon (Young Artists Series) Woodstock, NY: William M. Fisher, 1922.
The New York Times (obituary). January 7, 1987.
"Peggy Bacon," in Current Biography, 1987. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1988.
Tarbell, Roberta K. Peggy Bacon: Personalities and Places. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, no. 6151, 1975.
Major holdings of prints with annotations by Alexander Brook in Guild Hall, East Hampton, New York.
Correspondence, papers and memorabilia located in the George Arents Research Library, Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York.
Peggy Bacon papers in the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution; Peggy Bacon papers, letters and lists of work in the National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Laurie Twist Binder , Library Media Specialist, Buffalo Public Schools, Buffalo, New York, and freelance graphic artist and illustrator