The forgotten women of Glasgow’s Art Nouveau

By Staff members, Olivia Marrins

Margaret and Frances Macdonald’s artistic legacy has been overlooked by the art world for decades

Charles Rennie Mackintosh, James Herbert MacNair, Margaret Macdonald, and Francis Macdonald: the group known as the “Glasgow Four” was comprised of these four Glasgow School of Art graduates who met in the mid-1890s. Each became pioneering figures of the Art Nouveau movement at this time and into the 20th century. The establishment of their creative and innovative designs and graphics shaped what is known as the Glasgow Style, a majorly distinctive form characterised by fantastical, dreamlike figures and geometric patterns. 

The Glasgow Style took inspiration from both Celtic and Japanese art, drawing on other movements which had come before. The style is itself a form of Art Nouveau, a movement eager to break away from historicism which governed most of the 19th century. Art Nouveau was considered modern and feminine for its time, and its asymmetrical lines, flower stalks, and natural imagery aligned it with movement and nature. 

While many are familiar with the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, one of Scotland’s most highly regarded architects and designers, his fellow artists aren’t remembered quite as vividly. In particular, sisters Margaret and Frances MacDonald are often downplayed in the art world, and although they are celebrated as members of the Glasgow Four, their work as individual artists is often brushed over. 

Frances and Margaret Macdonald played an important role in the conception of the aesthetic principles underlying Art Nouveau. With Margaret starting at the Glasgow School of Art in 1884 and Frances following suit in 1890, both sisters built a rich portfolio for their work very early on in their career. The Glasgow Four hosted their very first exhibition at the Arts and Crafts Society in 1896, although behind the scenes Margaret and Frances had their own independent studio situated on Hope Street in Glasgow’s City Centre. Both within the Glasgow Four and individually, the pair created an extensive range of original graphic designs, furniture pieces and artworks, cementing their style at the heart of Art Nouveau.

The sisters’ work drew from Victorian puritanism and Celtic influence, creating a new style which aligned modernity with an innovative graphic style. The geometric shapes in each piece stood at the forefront of their style, whether that be through the painting or design of figures, flowers, or abstract forms. Elongated bodies, often depicting the female form, suggest a certain consciousness for gender expression and freedom in their art. While the painted female nude was frequently depicted in art before the late 1800s, the Macdonalds’ works drew on this ethereal figure as a representation of independence. The sisters’ art legacy can seem somewhat obscured by that of Mackintosh, their names often being mentioned only in the shadow of the man at the forefront of the Glasgow Four. However, while for some critics the portrayal of the nude female body suggests a sexual tension between the artists of the Glasgow Four, it can also be seen as a kind of resistance to the gendered role women artists were expected to conform to at the time.  

After Frances married James Herbert MacNair in 1899, the couple moved to Liverpool where they taught at the School of Architecture and Applied Art. In 1909, the pair returned to Glasgow after the closure of the school, and Frances introduced her series of art pieces including Floral Design (1901) and Girl and Butterflies (1907), reflecting her experiences of marriage and motherhood. These symbolist works imitated conceptions of femininity and the sensitivity of female expression using watercolour and floral shapes. 

Margaret Macdonald began her career collaborating with her sister, then later her husband, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, whom she married in August 1900. The gesso panels that Margaret designed with her husband showcase her work produced for wider consumption. The panels were used to decorate the interiors of architectural designs such tearooms or private residences, one of which being The Hill House in Helensburgh.The artwork of Frances and Margaret Macdonald can be seen in galleries around Glasgow, the most accessible being the Hunterian Art Gallery just beside the University Library. The Mackintosh House, designed by both Margaret Macdonald and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, comprises a main section of the gallery. The display showcases a reassemblage of the main rooms of the couple’s Glasgow home, telling intriguing tales of the Glasgow Four and the artists’ individual lives, and displaying a collection of their designs. Additionally, a display of the Macdonald sisters’ work opened just last week at the National Gallery of Scotland. Here, the distinctive style of Frances and Margaret as artists in their own right and part of the Glasgow Four is explored through pieces such as Sleep by Frances Macdonald and The Mysterious Garden by Margaret Macdonald.


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