Six Degrees of Peggy Bacon


Six degrees of separation is the theory that anyone in the world is no more than six relationships away from any other person. The idea stretches back to Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi and it was made famous in a 1967 Harvard study, but John Guare’s 1990 play of the same name pushed the expression into everyday use. Riffing and serious study of the idea continue. The trivia game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” plotted celebrity connections. Last year, scientists at Facebook and the University of Milan determined that the degrees are now a mere 4.74.

The painter Peggy Bacon knew a lot of people in the art world. Taking her as the central figure, the collections of the Archives of American Art reveal the deep and diverse history of art in the United States and beyond. How did the creative, significant, and trivial interactions between student and teacher, artist and dealer, and even lover to lover work? How many degrees separate her art world from ours–and us from her?

Who was Peggy Bacon?

The New York artist Peggy Bacon (1895–1987) is not a household name, but she should be. Her long career was various, productive, and successful. She was famous for her witty caricatures of celebrities and artists; she excelled at printmaking; wrote and illustrated numerous children’s books; and published poetry and novels.

As the only child of Elizabeth Chase and Charles Roswell Bacon, painters who met at the Art Students League in Manhattan, Bacon grew up in an artistic family. She studied at the League herself, taking classes with the most popular teachers of the day, John Sloan, Kenneth Hayes Miller, and George Bellows. She also formed her lifelong circle of friends at the League, and its summer school in Woodstock, New York. In the 1920s, her career took off and her accomplishments are still to be envied: a first one-person show at Alfred Stieglitz’s Intimate Gallery in 1928; in 1934, a book of caricatures, Off With Their Heads, funded by a Guggenheim Fellowship; in 1953, she was nominated for an Edgar Award for the best first mystery novel by an American author for The Inward Eye.

Bacon stood at the center of a vast network of artists, dealers, critics, and family members. Its connections, intersections, and separations can be, by turns, surprising, amusing, or, predictable, and they illustrate the concept of the six degrees of separation.