Pegi Nicol MacLeod

Blind Contour Homage: “Women cleaning fish” Pegi Nichol MacLeod

In a 1947 letter to Jack Humphrey, Pegi Nicol McLeod wrote: “Art should be freedom; its essence is freedom. Rules, laws, controls, standards—these words smell of the academy.” Art wasn’t the only enterprise Pegi insisted should be free—a commitment to freedom permeated her attitude to life.

Born in Ontario, Pegi was interested in art from a young age, disappointing parents who had more traditional expectations of their only child. Never one to obey convention, Pegi found her own ways to study, learning painting from various teachers and self-training, making the sights in her own backyard worthy of artistic treatment. She came into contact with several of Canada’s young, free-spirited artists and writers, who nurtured Pegi’s independence, encouraging her wilful experimentation and her dramatic undertakings. Pegi’s friend Marjorie explained that it wasn’t exactly her painting that bothered her parents—“It was more the way she painted that they could not understand. The books she read, the music she played, everything she thought and did was contrary to their conditioning.” Indeed, after Pegi journeyed west in 1927-28 on an art expedition funded by the CPR, her mother destroyed a book Pegi wrote about her travels. Likewise, even when her parents allowed Pegi to live in their attic during certain periods when she was short of income or opportunities in other cities, they habitually discarded her paintings and sketchbooks. In rebellion (or perhaps merely as a habitual impulse), Pegi painted the attic floor blue.

Indeed, Pegi sustained a defiant, passionate commitment to her painting, persisting in the face of repeated disasters, such as a studio fire that destroyed all the work she produced during a six-month stay Montreal. 

Pegi thrived on social connection, and found much support from patrons interested in her work and in her “bohemian energy.” She wrote poetry and plays, wore her hair short, and had passionate romantic trysts. One of these led to an abortion (illegal at the time); another (a five-year relationship with Richard Finnie) was so intense that she felt she never entirely recovered from it. Throughout her vibrant social life, painting remained her priority, and she gradually developed a unique style, using vibrant colours and fluid forms to capture everyday scenes. One of her great talents was conveying energy from a still subject, such as a bouquet of flowers, or transforming the energetic chaos from a busy street scene to images that seemed to exceed reality. Her self-portraits sometimes shocked her audiences for their exultant and honest emphasis on her own sexuality.

It wasn’t until she married Norman MacLeod that her parents finally began to accept her and to grudgingly appreciate her art. She was 32-years-old, although she made herself three years younger on her wedding certificate. Together, she and Norman moved to New York City—an adventure at first, but eventually an obstacle. When their daughter Jane was born in 1937, she painted dozens of portraits of her adored infant, but she also felt cloistered by the drudgery of domestic life. Once World War II broke out, Pegi had a hard time shipping her paintings back to Canada—her main audience—and Norman struggled to find work. After the end of the war, she finally arrived at her most successful and celebrated period of painting. Having personally experienced the hardship of poverty during the war, she looked with fresh eyes at the suffering on the streets around her. So began her Manhattan Cycle (1947-48), a series of 110 paintings that explored the slums of New York City. The pieces portray people as they really lived—poor and besieged, chaotic and joyful. The Manhattan Cycle gained a quick and broad audience in Canada, moving from the National Gallery to a nation-wide tour.

Around the same time as she worked on this final part of her oeuvre, Pegi began to suffer from pains that had occasionally bothered her for years. Her vivacity struggled against the force of her illness, but she remained optimistic, and continued painting surrounded by cushions in the comfort of her kitchen. An operation was required, but neither her doctor nor her husband informed her that she had cancer until months later, when the tumours had spread throughout her body. In January 1949, she finally learned of her terminal illness, and she died in hospital a month later.   Pegi was praised in obituaries, and she has remained a celebrated Canadian artist. In 2003, Jane gave all of her mother’s pieces still in her possession to the Art Gallery of Ontario.

1904- Listowel, Ontario
1949- New York

Exhibition Dates for this series.


Brandon, Laura. Pegi by Herself: The Life of Pegi Nicol MacLeod, Canadian Artist. McGill-Queens UP, 2005.