Portraits in Acid: The Caricatures of Peggy Bacon

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Over the years, I have collected many books by and about caricaturists. Besides several tomes dedicated to Al Hirschfeld, some of my favorites include Is That Me? by New Yorker magazine caricaturist William Auerbach-Levy (Watson-Guptill, 1947); [Al] Frueh on the Theatre: Theatrical Caricatures 1906-1962, a catalog of a 1972 New York Public Library exhibit; The Arts of David Levine (Knopf, 1978); Miguel Covarrubias Caricatures, published by the National Portrait Gallery in 1985; Thomas Rolandson (1938, Willey Book Co.), with an essay by Art Young; and Daumier, a gorgeous volume published in 1938 in Paris with tipped-in color plates, among other treasures.

But the only book among my collection by and about a woman caricaturist is Off With Their Heads (Robert M. McBride & Co., 1934) by Peggy Bacon (1895-1987), a gifted and now little-known artist. After training under John Sloan at the Art Students League, Bacon enjoyed a long, successful career as a painter, etcher and graphic artist, living into her early nineties.

She was an established illustrator when she saw the pastel caricatures of Will Cotton (1880-1958), which inspired her to try her own hand at celebrity portraits, but in decidedly more pointed graphic lines.

Several New York City exhibitions of her caricatures, starting in 1928, attracted positive critical attention, which buoyed a trend during the Depression in which art galleries regularly exhibited caricature. Bacon’s fame as a caricaturist culminated in the well-received publication of Off With Their Heads in 1934, a collection of artworks accompanied by equally sharp verbal observations of her celebrity subjects and methodology. One contemporary critic called the book an “artistic sensation.” The New York Times described its artworks as “portraits in acid.”

A year later, Bacon ceased drawing caricatures.

She “hated to be misunderstood and disliked offending her subjects, and she quickly lost her taste for caricature,” according to Wendy Wick Reaves, curator of prints and drawings at the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian, in her superb and indispensable 1998 book, Celebrity Caricature in America. “I couldn’t stand getting under people’s skins,” Reaves quotes Bacon admitting in 1943. “The caricatures made them smart so.”

Understandably so.

Imagine what interior decorator and popular 1920s figure Louise Hellstrom (top) thought when she first glimpsed her 1927 portrait — all massive red lips, shit-brindle-brown hair bob and goiter. The pastel technique, influenced by Bacon’s admiration for Cotton’s work, does not soften the image’s ludicrous distortion. Perhaps Bacon let personal feelings run amok, or perhaps she recalled a Carl Van Vechten novel in which Hellstrom was supposedly the model for a character who “resembled a gay death.”

Bacon quickly eschewed pastels for a sensitive expressive line in conte crayon. Depending on the subject, her line could speak with affection or wry, dry and mordant wit or brutal honesty. Sometimes all three. And she was unsparing with herself, both in picture and words. Attractive in real life, her squinty-eyed portrait leads with a nose that pulls her entire face westward ho, her proboscis sniffing the air for things to dislike or find fault with. Here is Bacon’s relentless observation of herself:

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 of the delights of her book is a small-sized bonus cartoon of the subject depicted in full on the facing page. Bacon described Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1986) just so: “Personality stripped and whittled. Conspicuous as a nun. Distinguished and restricted as Electra.” In the portrait, O’Keefe is menaced in her bed by gigantic, lurching pansies, a witty reference to the alleged sexual content of O’Keefe’s flower paintings.

Dorothy Parker (1893-1967), queen of the legendary Algonquin Round Table literary group, receives a sensitive, perceptive portrait. A slender, elegant neck stem supports Parker’s large “[c]hic, bright fluttering head perched on a sluggish, opulent body like a quick live bird on a rooted tree.” Parker’s delicately drawn facial features include, Bacon says, “[r]ound, eager eyes wide open, bulgy, slightly mad.”

Parker’s “pert lips of specious sweetness” appear to me to be open, ready to drop a devastating witticism, such as her 1934 review of a Katherine Hepburn stage performance as having run the emotional gamut “from A to B.” The pile of dark disheveled hair, which Bacon describes as “cascading over face in a panic-stricken style,” hints at Parker’s inner turmoil, alcoholism, and depression. Wendy Wick Reaves Bacon believes Bacon “achieves a haunted look” in the portrait, and I agree. The longer you view it, the more you perceive it on an emotional level.

Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951), the first writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (in 1930) hailed from Sauk Center, Minnesota. Bacon captures the small town boy in the pensive pose and expression of the man wrapped up in his thoughts and ungainly long legs, pondering the creative challenge of the blank page trapped in the typewriter before him. The image is featured on the book’s dust jacket.

“Irritable brow,” Bacon writes of Lewis. “Long flat plane from temple to collar. Flesh like canned tomatoes with the seeds in it … Sandy eyelashes, invisible eyebrows, lips gathered on a draw-string with puzzled purse like old lady’s reticule … Looks overheated, corrugated, modest and oafish. A country-store type.”

In Bacon’s drawing, one would have to look deeply to find, under the oafish country boy exterior, the sharp perspicacious mind of the man who predicted years ago that “when fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross.”

Peggy Bacon’s caricaturing sensibility followed her throughout her career even after she formally renounced celebrity portraiture. Her consummate drawing skills in her many etchings and illustrations exhibit a discerning eye, keen intelligence, deep sensitivity, and a certain graphic exaggeration, in the best sense of the word.

Women caricaturists were and still are, unfortunately, few and far between. Peggy Bacon was a great one.

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