Pegi by Herself

Pegi by Herself: The Life of Pegi Nicol MacLeod, Canadian Artist

Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 276
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    Pegi by Herself
    Book Description:

    One of the most vibrant artists of her generation, Pegi Nicol MacLeod was a charismatic bohemian whose expressive images of the contemporary world were an essential component of Canadian modernism during the 1930s and 1940s. In Pegi by Herself, the first full-length biography of Nicol MacLeod, Laura Brandon draws on the artist's remarkable autobiographical paintings and extraordinarily vivid letters. Remembered as much for her colourful life, love affairs, and significant friendships with Vincent Massey, Norman Bethune, Frank Scott, and Graham Spry as for her artistic achievement, Nicol MacLeod exhibited successfully and received significant commissions from the National Gallery of Canada to paint the wartime women's services. She was honoured there with a memorial exhibition following her early death in 1949. Lavishly illustrated, Pegi by Herself accompanies Pegi Nicol MacLeod: A Life in Art, a touring retrospective exhibition of the artist's work that opens at the Carleton University Art Gallery in February 2005, and the premiere of an NFB film biography.

    eISBN: 978-0-7735-8108-1
    Subjects: Art & Art History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. Abbreviations
    (pp. vi-vi)
  4. Illustrations
    (pp. vii-xii)
  5. Preface: Rediscovering Pegi
    (pp. xiii-2)
  6. Introduction: An Urban Life and Vision
    (pp. 3-8)

    AT THE TIME OF HER DEATH IN 1949, Pegi Nicol MacLeod was an established and nationally known Canadian artist with a reputation that merited the remarkable achievement of a memorial exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada.¹ Furthermore, Vincent Massey, then at the height of his career and the most influential layperson in the arts in Canada, opened the show. In response to this display, one writer heralded Pegi’s contribution to Canadian art as “work that is possibly more refreshing, more expressive of our times, than that of any other woman painter.”² Another noted that her “early death is a...

  7. Part One: An Emerging Talent, 1904–1926
    • 1 An Intense Gaze, 1904–1922
      (pp. 11-22)

      IMAGINE, FOR A MOMENT, A BLUE CARDBOARD PHOTOGRAPH MAT - not large - embossed with the words “C.A. Lee, Main St. Bridge, Listowel” (Fig. 1.1).¹ A faded white border creates a distinct vertical rectangle in its centre that frames a black-and-white figure of a young girl of about twelve, standing behind a wicker armchair on which stands a toddler. The toddler is Pegi Nicol MacLeod at about two — our earliest encounter with her. Dressed entirely in white, with a locket round her neck, a bracelet on her right arm, and white socks and polished, neatly strapped dark shoes on her...

    • 2 A New Life, 1923–1926
      (pp. 23-34)

      ERIC BROWN TOOK A PHOTO OF PEGi ON SKIS one winter (Fig. 2.1). Always athletic, Pegi had become a willing participant in the outdoor life that both Browns loved. Dressed warmly in dark outerwear, she leans on a pole, her skis and boots snow-covered. The trees on either side of her are robust, with bare branches, and deep, white powder reaches back into the woods behind, under a clear, chilly sky. Pegi looks confident and purposeful. This is a young woman who identifies herself with the land and with the challenging climate and revels in it all.

      Pegi’s first encounter...

  8. Part Two: Finding an Approach, 1926–1934
    • 3 “The one who falls in the lake,” 1926–1931
      (pp. 37-50)

      NEITHER THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF PEGI’S HOME LIFE nor her ‘rebellion’ impeded or repressed her development. She continued to paint, to teach, to develop her professional reputation, and to expand her horizons. She was able to travel across Canada and see for herself the eastern and western rims of the country. In 1926, she accompanied the Browns to Nova Scotia on the Atlantic seaboard (where exactly is not documented). This trip was the first time that she had seen and smelt the open sea. Maud Brown remembers that “the notebook came out as sitting on a rock she sketched the waves...

    • 4 Left-Wing Flames, 1931–1932
      (pp. 51-59)

      IN THE AUTUMN OF 1931 twenty-seven-year-old Pegi moved to Montreal. One can surmise, in the absence of evidence, that she hoped to further her burgeoning career. As well, her recent professional successes may have suggested that she could survive independently. Living with her parents had become increasingly irksome; they saw her as merely unmarried and self-employed, and her presence seemed a reproach to their values. She probably also wanted to get away from Ottawa and memories of her failed relationship with Richard Finnic. Too honest not to be aware of her early good luck as an artist, she doubtless also...

    • 5 Kaleidoscope, 1932–1934
      (pp. 61-70)

      MUCH AS SHE MOURNED THE LOSS of her Montreal life and her independence, as winter 1932 made its mark felt Pegi settled back well enough into her parents’ attic. She painted the floor blue, acquired an orange cover for her bed, and proceeded to get to work.¹ As always, she wrote. As part of the Playwrights’ Group she adapted for radio Hans Christian Andersen’sThe Snow Queen.²

      She also sketched her friends. She mentioned the activity in a 1932 letter to Frank and Marian Scott: “I am recruiting the figures of all my friends. I lure them up to the...

  9. Part Three: Toronto and New York, 1934–1939
    • 6 Cyclamens and Begonias, 1934–1935
      (pp. 73-90)

      PEGI SPENT MUCH OF THE SUMMER OF 1934 as the guest of Vincent and Alice Massey at Port Hope near Toronto. She had met them in Ottawa through the Browns (Massey was a trustee of the National Gallery from 1925 to 1952, when, a widower, he moved into Rideau Hall). She also had a personal connection with them through her Montreal friend Raleigh Parkin, Alice’s brother. While this summer opportunity was probably what led her to leave Ottawa, it was not necessarily the reason she lived in Toronto afterwards.

      The Masseys were both enthusiastic patrons of the arts and had...

    • 7 A Wider Circle and a Wedding, 1936
      (pp. 91-101)

      AS IMPORTANT TO PEGI AS HER PERSONAL LIFE WAS, her career as an artist was even more so, and her first two years in Toronto had advanced it only somewhat. As the Depression started to ease, conditions remained harsh, and any settled life eluded her. She bounced around from occupation, to project, to crisis. She knew many people, and she was as well known and admired as many of her peers there such as Paraskeva Clark and Will Ogilvie. She painted industriously and well, exhibited, and earned a little by doing portraits of children. Producing the sort of landscapes that...

    • 8 Greenwich Village Vistas, 1937–1939
      (pp. 102-110)

      EARLY IN 1937, PEGI AND NORMAN MOVED FROM TORONTO TO New York. Pegi was pregnant, and Norman was desperate for permanent work that would support a family. The improving Canadian economy made them think that U.S. conditions should be even better. Yet even though Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal had helped some of the hardest-hit areas of the United States, unemployment generally remained stubbornly high until war started in Europe and French and British orders for supplies began to reinvigorate the American economy.

      The New York that they discovered was beautiful and full of exciting architecture, music, and culture - a...

    (pp. None)
  11. Part Four: Ottawa and Fredericton, 1939–1948
    • 9 A New Brunswick Renaissance, 1939–1940
      (pp. 113-122)

      CANADA DECLARED WAR ON GERMANY on 10 September 1939. In downtown Manhattan, Pegi, Norman, and Jane were settling into their new apartment at 345 West 12th Street in Greenwich Village. New Jersey was now in their past. In practical terms, the war had little effect on their lives or environment. The United States was for now resolutely a nonparticipant, secure in its myths of innocence and exceptionalism. From the Nazi occupation of Poland until the fall of France in June 1940, New Yorkers remained disconnected: interested more in the World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows in Queens than in the “phoney”...

    • 10 Six Weeks in Summer, 1941–1948
      (pp. 123-136)

      BUOYED BY HER SEVERAL EXCITING MONTHS in New Brunswick and memories of an excellent class, Pegi was quite happy to return to Manhattan at the end of 1940. Norman had not found a suitable job in Canada but had located something in New York. They now accepted the city as home and took a long lease on an apartment, so that Jane could begin infant schooling. They took a top-floor apartment - the cheapest centrally located one available - at 509 East 88th Street in an area known as Germantown. Pegi wrote to Madge Smith, “This is ... a contrast...

    • 11 Figuring War, Part 1, 1940–1944
      (pp. 137-142)

      PEGI BECAME ACTIVE IN THE WAR EFFORT while in Fredericton in October 1940. It is the best-documented stage of her life, as most of her work in that context stemmed from official commissions. The documentation captures both the official and the unofficial record of her undertakings, which brought her long-lasting recognition. Her participation followed extensive lobbying for a war art program by many Canadian artists and art writers. The effort during the First World War had brought artists such as A.Y. Jackson and Fred Varley to public attention and done much to expand interest in Canadian art. This legacy, combined...

    • 12 Figuring War, Part 2, 1944–1946
      (pp. 143-152)

      PEGI KNEW THAT ARTISTS of her acquaintance were painting Canada’s war effort. From 1941 on, painters, who included Will Ogilvie, had been portraying the work of Canadian soldiers in Britain. Charles Comfort had become one of the first official war artists attached to the Canadian army as part of the Canadian War Records program, which Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King had approved in December 1942. Ultimately, this scheme employed thirty-two artists.¹ Pegi commented to Marian Scott in January 1944, “I find the Can. war artists very disappointing; feel I’d like a chance to do it!”² However, those in charge...

  12. Part Five: Our Kind of Affairs, 1940–1949
    • 13 Wrestling with New York, 1940–1947
      (pp. 155-169)

      IN NEW YORK, BETWEEN 1936 AND 1949, Pegi painted in watercolour virtually every day. It was easily transportable and amenable to short working periods. She was also by now proficient in this medium. To the inexperienced eye, the tools look simple: a clean sheet of paper, paints and water to one side, and a favourite brush in hand. One wets the pigment, mixes in more water with a brush to the desired intensity of colour, and applies it to the paper, which absorbs the colour.

      Yet, despite its seeming simplicity, watercolour is full of surprises, and using it is always...

    • 14 Manhattan Cycle in Canada, 1947–1949
      (pp. 170-177)

      THUS PEGI’S SPASMODIC AND UNPLANNED BODY OF WORK centred On East 88th Street took on a life of its own in the mid-1940s and gained some sort of coherence. The Manhattan works differed from those that had made her reputation in Canada, as Helen Beals had noted, and did not reflect current stylistic trends. They seemed to please some people and mystify others. “The press couldn’t understand my picture” she told Marian Scott in early 1944 about a canvas in a Canadian Group of Painters exhibition. “I suppose [that] can be taken as a sign. I’m troubled to think of...

    • 15 A Cruel Irony, 1948–1949
      (pp. 179-186)

      SEATED ON STONE STEPS IN FREDERICTON, and dressed in a neat dark coat and pillbox hat, Pegi looks like a 1940S’ version of Hecate, the demonized goddess of death and the netherworld. In the photograph, her face tense and drawn, and her eyes dark and sunken, only her curly midlength hair, quite clearly permed, speaks to her buoyancy. It looks like the face of a dying woman (Fig. 15.1). In fact, the photograph antedated her death by nearly ten years, but ill-health was a constant companion from her mid-thirties on. Serious illness bided its time.

      On 4 June 1948, Pegi...

  13. Epilogue: A Joyous Prolificness
    (pp. 187-188)

    IN THE COURSE OF MY RESEARCH I inevitably made contact with Jane, Pegi’s daughter. In 1984, I visited New York and photographed the hundreds of Pegi’s canvases that she and her husband, Aristides, had stored in their attic. We stayed in touch. In 1992,I moved to Ottawa to work at the Canadian War Museum, the repository of Pegi’s war paintings, and purchased a house only a few blocks from her former home in the Glebe. In 1998, Jane, Aristides, and their son, MacLeod, stayed with us. The occasion was the opening of an exhibition of Peg’s wartime art at the...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 189-210)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 211-228)
  16. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 229-234)
  17. Index
    (pp. 235-241)