Monday, 19 August 2013

Pegeen Vail, the 31 Women number 18, Her birthday is 18 August

Pegeen Vail       18 August 1925 - 1967  
American painter 
Jezebel Margaret (Pegeen) Vail was born in Switzerland, the daughter of Peggy Guggenheim and her first husband, American artist and international bon viveur, Lawrence Vail.  Pegeen painted from early childhood and was encouraged by both parents, thought they agreed about little else. Pegeen is an artist who, although her work is exhibited as part of the Peggy Guggenheim collection in Venice, is ignored in serious reviews of art history and the reverse snobbery rife in this field is to blame. Those subscribing to the Clement Greenberg philosophy of art were unlikely to be interested in an artist not only born with a silver spoon, but also tirelessly pushed and promoted by her wealthy mother.

This is one of Pegeen’s tragedies, her work is only ever mentioned in relation to Peggy Guggenheim, although she tried all her adult life to break the ties that held her to her mother’s fame, fortune and personality, with only partial success.  On first viewing, her paintings appear cheerful, colourful, decorative and innocent. Their naiveté hides a darker, frequently troubled life which those who knew her are able to read as an undercurrent in her work, though this is not always especially visible to outsiders. Her doll like depictions of women, usually bare-breasted and some as self-portraits, could be indications of the powerlessness she felt about aspects of her life.

The painting of Pegeen's shown at the 1943 Exhibition of 31 Women, Joie De Vivre, although painted when Pegeen was only eighteen, was not her first exhibited work.  In 1938 her drawings had been shown at an exhibition of children’s art at her mother’s Guggenheim Jeune gallery in London.  This copied an idea from the French Surrealists, who had a fascination with the ‘innocent’ art of childhood.  Pegeen was in good company, work by a very young Lucien Freud was also included in the show.  Buyers included English surrealist Roland Penrose and Belgian surrealist E.L.T. Mesens and all Pegeen Vail’s pictures were sold, at least according to her mother.

Pegeen’s parents had first met when Peggy Guggenheim (then only 21) was, in deliberate defiance of her own mother, working at Sunwise Turn, an avant-garde bookshop in New York. They married in 1922, despite Florette Guggenheim’s disapproval, and migrated to Europe.  They moved around constantly, stopping in London for the birth of Sindbad, their son and were in a hotel beside Lake Geneva for Pegeen’s birth on 18 Aug 1925.  When not in school, Pegeen and her brother were dispatched to and fro at their parent’s convenience.  Peggy and Lawrence separated in 1929 and divorced two years later, Pegeen was officially in the custody of her mother, Sindbad of his father, but it was not always that straight-forward.
Pegeen spend much of her childhood with her father and his second wife, author, journalist and activist Kay Boyle, who was Pegeen’s stepmother until 1943 and provided her with three half-sisters. Her other companions in childhood included Debbie Garman, daughter of writer and publisher Douglas Garman and Barbara Reis, daughter of Peggy’s friends Bernard and Rebecca Reis; Bernard Reis was also Peggy’s controversial accountant and financial adviser. Barbara also became an artist.

In spite of moving around so much, Swiss born Pegeen did manage to gain an education, she went to a number of schools in France, beginning at a small bi-lingual school in Neuilly, France run by Peggy’s friend, writer Marie Jolas, whose daughter Betsy was a classmate and friend.  Whilst Pegeen became a painter, Betsy Jolas would grow up to be an influential composer.  The Jolas family were very much involved in the progressive literary world in 1930’s France, with Betsy’s father Eugene helping to edit the important magazine ‘transition’.  

For Pegeen, other small schools ensued in France and England and then in 1936, aged 12 she was sent to England to attend Bedales, a liberal boarding school in Hampshire and then to another in Wimbledon with her friend Debbie Garman. She ended in the US, attending Finch College, New York.  Rather surprisingly she did not go on to further education in art, after a trip to Mexico in 1943 she decided to give up being a student. Her technique and style are self-taught, though she may have had guidance from step-father Max Ernst and her husband Jean Helion.

Described as colourful, mysterious and primitivist, her painting was admired early on by surrealist Yves Tanguy, who with his wife Jeannette stayed with Pegeen and her mother in 1938. Tanguy at the time had an exhibition at Guggenheim Jeune in London, where his paintings were selling well, but he nonetheless was happy to exchange a picture for one by fourteen year old Pegeen, who was home on holiday from boarding school.  In 1940 Pegeen moved with her parents and siblings to New York, fleeing the war.

In New York in 1944, the year after the 31 Women Exhibition, Pegeen Vail married French painter-in-exile Jean Helion (21 years her senior). She and Helion had three sons, Fabrice, David & Nicolas. When her marriage to Helion began failing, she spent increasing periods back with her mother after Peggy’s move to Venice.  Pegeen was allowed a studio space in the cellars of the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, where she continued to paint her, “childlike scenes peopled by doll or puppet-like creatures who communicate nothing so much as isolation, and who bear a curious resemblance to the figures in Hazel’s paintings, ” according to Anton Gill, Peggy Guggenheim’s biographer. (Gill p384)

The Hazel in question is Hazel McKinley, Pegeen’s aunt and Peggy Guggenheim’s sister. Hazel was a painter for most of her adult life and exhibited widely in small galleries in England, France and the U.S.  Her work was also included in the 'Exhibition of 31 Women', the only time Peggy would show her sister’s work. Both Pegeen and Hazel have been frequently dismissed as whimsical dilettantes, merely hangers on of Peggy Guggenheim, only exhibited due to their connection to the famous collector and gallerist. This seems quite unfair, as both women devoted much of their lives to their painting, neither merely dabbled in art and Pegeen wanted all her adult life to live financially and creatively independent of her mother.
 Pegeen has one unique distinction as an artist; In 1948 Peggy Guggenheim's collection, including work by Pegeen and by her father Lawrence Vail, was exhibited at the Venice Biennale. According to Philip Rylance, curator of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, this made Pegeen a third generation Biennale exhibitor; her grandfather Eugene Vail was also an artist and his name appeared in nineteenth century Biennale catalogues.  

After separation from Helion, Pegeen stayed in Venice with her mother and had an affair with Tancredi Parmrggiani, another painter and protégé of Peggy’s, who was also painting in the basement.  In 1957 she accompanied her mother to the opening of a Francis Bacon exhibition in London, where she met radical English artist Ralph Rumney, a founder member of the Situationist collective.  Rumney said it was a case of love at first sight, on his part at least. He became very unpopular with Peggy Guggenheim, who had wanted her daughter to marry an English aristocrat, not a penniless painter.  Pegeen’s marriage with Helion ended and following precedent, she defied her mother’s wishes and married Rumney, they had another son, Sandro.  

Rumney, despite the radical art he was engaged in creating, appreciated Pegeen’s less revolutionary talent, he said of her work; “her paintings, especially the pastels, are very deceptive if you only look at the surface where, at first glance, there is nothing but life, colour, festivity. It’s only after a deeper contemplation that you perceive the poignant beauty and anguish that her work breathes. Her work reflected her experience.” (Dearborn page 281)

Pegeen Vail tried to live from her art. A complicated, tumultuous family life, depression and a not always marketable talent meant she was destined to fail.  Marketing Pegeen’s bright, linear, almost cartoon-like paintings, in the 1950’s age of macho abstraction, proved almost impossible even for a woman of Peggy Guggenheim’s talents. Early in the 1960s Pegeen's luck began to change when she met Egidio Costantini, one of the most renowned Murano glass-maker who had created sculptures for Picasso and Chagall.  He created glass sculptures from Pegeen's drawings.

In 1966 she was finally on the brink of success, with international exhibitions in Canada, Stockholm and Philadelphia.  Her work had also been exhibited in New York, Paris, London and Milan, her career was at last beginning to take off when, in March 1967 she suffered a crisis, the last of many. She had received psychoanalysis during the 1950’s, but depression and its accompanying anguish had been frequent companions, which medication and alcohol had failed to relieve.  Rumney found her dead in the bathroom of their Paris apartment.

Pegeen died aged only 43, leaving her four young sons, a distraught Rumney and a devastated mother.  Peggy quite unfairly tried to persuade the French authorities to prosecute Rumney over Pegeen’s death and he was briefly questioned, there was no prosecution. However Rumney's son was spirited away and he only re-established contact with the boy after he grew up. Sandro phoned every Rumney in London, until he found his father.

After her death, Pegeen Vail’s art was forgotten by all but a very few. Peggy Guggenheim devoted a room in her Venice Palazzo to some of her daughter’s paintings, where they can still be seen today.  Perhaps her art is now due for a revival; the first biography of Pegeen Vail was published in 2010, written by her son, artist and photographer Benjamin Helion and friend Benjamin Lanot.

My thanks to:-

Karole PB Vail
Philip Rylands
Barbara Shuckman
Other sources include:-

Mary Dearborn  Mistress of Modernism 2004 Houghton Mifflin

Peggy Guggenheim, Out of This Century- Confessions of an Art Addict 1979 London Andre Deutch
Anton Gill, Peggy Guggenheim, the Life of an Art Addict 2001 Harper Collins

Karole PB Vail Peggy Guggenheim a Celebration, published 1998 for the centennial exhibition in Venice

Comments, corrections and further information about Pegeen Vail are very welcome.


You can read about each of the 31 women as their birthdays arrive, earlier ones will remain on this blog.


  1. Some of Pegeen Vail's work will be auctioned through Stair Galleries, Hudson NY on December 6, 2014

  2. That's interesting, thank you.