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Portraits in Acid: The Caricatures of Peggy Bacon

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.”

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.

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.

“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.