A versatile artist who was comfortable working in a range of media that included woodblock prints, watercolors, and pen and ink drawings, Mabel Pugh was born in Morrisville, North Carolina, and graduated in 1913 from the nearby all-women’s college, Peace Institute, in Raleigh. She moved to New York City to attend classes at the Art Students League and Columbia University, before being awarded a four-year scholarship to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. The esteemed figure painter Charles Hawthorne was among her instructors at the institution, where her achievements were recognized in 1919 with a prestigious Cresson Traveling Scholarship to tour and study in Europe.
After returning to New York, Pugh fared successfully as a professional artist, particularly in the area of book illustration. Her woodblock prints and pen and ink drawings appeared on the covers and within the pages of popular novels and in such widely distributed magazines as McCall’s and Ladies’ Home Journal. She also authored and illustrated a small volume for children, Little Carolina Bluebonnet, issued in 1933. At the same time, her paintings were included in exhibitions at the National Academy of Design, National Association of Women Artists, and Brooklyn Museum, as well as the 1939 World’s Fair and in Southern exhibitions. In 1936, Pugh returned to teach and eventually head the art department at her alma mater, known then as Peace College, until 1960. She became active in state and Southern arts organizations, as a charter member of the North Carolina Association of Professional Artists, and a member of the Southern States Arts League.
During her tenure at Peace, Pugh began to take on occasional portrait commissions, including those of prominent North Carolina congressmen, as well as representatives from other states. Several of these works hang in various buildings in Washington, D.C. These formal depictions are markedly different from other portraits which feature loose, gestural brushwork or examples rendered in a more naturalistic manner.
Among Pugh’s portraits, The Champion seems to inhabit a world of its own. The painting is of a young, unidentified female golfer who is portrayed with the signifiers of her sport. Seated next to a bag of golf clubs, the figure leans back against what seems to be a chair or stool. In her hands—the left still encased in a supple golf glove—she holds a piece of paper, which one might surmise is a scorecard from a match. A possible dating of the painting to the late 1940s or 1950s seems likely, as the sitter’s dress suggests athletic wear of that time: a simple red vest, or jerkin, over a white blouse and a gray skirt. A monochromatic background depicts an assortment of trophies arrayed on shelves, while the view through the window is indistinct. Whether the trophies in the background are hers or are simply a grouping in a clubhouse, these laurels signify her status as a champion.