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The Artistic Heritage of the MacDonald Sisters: Exploring the Feminine Motif in Art Nouveau

The Sleeping Princess (1896) by Frances MacDonald

The late nineteenth century until the beginning of the First World War was a prosperous period, whereby a novel style in art emerged in North America and Europe, known as Art Nouveau (1890-1914), meaning new art. Many Art Nouveau style artists contributed to the flourish of beautifully drawn representations of “science, nature, mythical history, gender and modernity for inspiration” (Green, 2007), exposing their own thoughts and feelings through their works of art as the instance of the Glasgow Four—Charles Rennie MacKintosh, his friend James Herbert McNair, Margaret MacDonald (1864-1933), and her sister Frances MacDonald (1873-1921)—whose works had a significant impact in decorative art designs during that time, as a response to the influence of the Dutch-Indonesian painter Jan Toorop’s painting The Three Brides (1893) on their artistic muse. Accordingly, an examination of the feminine artworks of the MacDonald Sisters, Margaret and Frances, will be the main subject to explore in this article.

Born in a British upper-middle class family, the MacDonald sisters moved to the Scottish city of Glasgow from an early age with their family, where they had the opportunity to follow an enriching female education before enrolling at the Glasgow School of Art in the early 1890s, following thus, disciplined and academic training in Art, by studying a variety of mediums, from textiles and embroidery to painting and metalwork designs, to become afterward professionally trained artists. Soon after completion of their studies in the mid-1890s, the MacDonald sisters started to work together in their art studio at 128, Hope Street in Glasgow, producing a variety of artistic representations of women deeply “influenced by mysticism, symbolism and Celtic imagery” (brettaronowitz, n.d.) as being the most important themes to paint and celebrate in reaction to the first wave of feminism, which straddled between late nineteenth century up to the early twentieth century. In this way, the interest of the MacDonald Sisters in mythological and fairy figures had consolidated and strengthened their collaboration to become recognized as flourishing Art Nouveau style artists at that time.

The Mysterious Garden (1911) by Margaret MacDonald

In fact, the partnership of the MacDonald sisters was fruitful as they produced several works of art together, such as the three panel screen of the Birth and Death of the Winds (1893-96), Clock (1896), and a textile design known as Vanity Handkerchief (c.1920), in parallel to separate artistic works, always in favor of the use of geometric shapes as squares and symmetry states Green (2017). Moreover, a preference over “light, neutral, metallic natural and mythical” (Green, 2007) colors are used abundantly to produce a dreamy and glowing effect of the feminine nude bodies, considered as a revolutionary attempt to represent women in the Western societies as being “independent, ethereal and not submissive” (Green, 2007) subjects in their art. Unexpectedly, the marriage of Frances and the Scottish artist James Herbert McNair in 1899, followed by the marriage of Margaret and the Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh in 1900 put an end to the partnership of the MacDonald sisters as they went on different paths—the McNair couple flew to Liverpool while the Mackintosh couple stayed in Glasgow.

The Choice (1886) by Frances MacDonald

Contrary to Margaret, whose collaboration with her husband paved the way to more creative and outstanding works, such as “the production of panels for interiors and furniture, notably for The Willow Tearooms 1904, the Warndorfer Music Salon in Vienna, and the Hill House” (brettaronowitz, n.d.), Frances devoted little time for her art and thus, could not be as artistically active as before due to the birth of her son and her marriage issues, followed by the financial situation of her husband, which had a severe impact on the artistic career of the McNair couple. In other words, Margaret had more freedom along with her husband’s support to put into practice her skills and produce more artworks contrary to her sister Frances whose life turned to be harder than expected.

Years before the MacDonald Sisters split, the Glasgow Four were invited by the Secession president Carl Moll to attend the Vienna Secession in 1900, an opportunity for the four of them to exhibit their collaborative and separate works, such as furniture, metalwork, glass, textiles, paintings, and gesso panels” (, n.d.). As Jones (2015) describes, all of the works of the Glasgow Four witnessed a huge success in Vienna, whereby it drew the attention of the Austrian painter Gustav Klimt to Margaret’s series of twelve panels of The Seven Princesses (1907) and Frances MacDonald’s painting Sleep (1910) aside from the Glasgow Four’s artistic contribution in the Vienna Secession, remarkably imprinted in his Beethoven Frieze painting (1902), displayed in the Vienna Secession Building.

Sleeping Princess (1908) by Margaret MacDonald

In conclusion, the partnership of the MacDonald sisters in parallel with their artistic contribution with Mackintosh and MacNair is to be remembered as the leading icon of the emergence of the Glasgow style, urging the celebration of geometric symmetry designed in women figures, purely inspired by mythology, Celtic folklore, symbolic imagery, and fairy feminine portraits. Had not the artworks of MacDonald sisters been aesthetically influential because of their bold yet bewitching themes of women’s fairy representations, they would have never influenced other artists like Gustav Klimt to inscribe his fascination for the MacDonald’s artistic genius in his Beethoven Frieze painting. Today, the artistic heritage of the MacDonald Sisters is still celebrated in the Hunterian Art Gallery and the Kelvins Grove Museum in Glasgow, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh, and the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool.

Image Sources

Klimt, G. (1902). Beethoven Frieze [Painting]. The Vienna Secession Building, Vienna, Austria.

Macdonald, F. (1886). The Choice [Painting]. National Museums Liverpool, Liverpool, U.K.

Macdonald Mackintosh, M. (1911). The Mysterious Garden [Painting]. National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, Scotland.

Macdonald Mackintosh, M. (1908). Sleeping Princess [Painting]. National Trust for Scotland, The Hill House, Scotland.

Macdonald MacNair, F. (1896). The Sleeping Princess [Painting]. The Property of the Late Gordon House.

Exhibited in Liverpool, Sandon Gallery, 1908. Glasgow, Glasgow Museum Art Galleries, Mackintosh Watercolours, July 1978-January 1979, no. 14. London, Barbican Art Gallery, The Last Romantics 1989 , no. 410. Japan, Suntory Museum, The Isetan Museum of Art and The Mie Prefectural Art Museum, Mackintosh and the Glasgow Style, 15 September 2000- 18 February 2001

Macdonald Mackintosh, M. (1907). Seven Princesses [Painting]. Museum of Applied Arts, Vienna, Austria.

Macdonald MacNair, F. (1910). Sleep [Painting]. National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, Scotland.

Toorop, J. (1893). The Three Brides [Painting]. The Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands.


Green, C. (2017, December 19). The Scottish Sisters Who Pioneered Art Nouveau. JSTOR Daily. Retrieved November 29, 2021, from

Jones, S. (2015, April 12). Klimt and the Macdonald sisters. Https://Artworkoftheweek.Wordpress.Com. Retrieved November 30, 2021, from

Mancoff, D. N. (2002). Art Nouveau 1890–1914. Victorian Studies, Vol. 44(No. 2), 297–299.

M188 Room setting for the Eighth Exhibition of the Vienna Secession. (2014). Mackintosh-Architecture.Gla.Ac.Uk. Retrieved November 29, 2021, from

The Rose Gallery. (2021). The Sisters of Glasgow Margaret & Frances Macdonald [Slides]. Http://Brettaronowitz.Com.

womenartblog. (2017, October 14). The Glasgow School Sisters who Influenced Klimt. Https://Womensartblog.Wordpress.Com. Retrieved December 1, 2021, from


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Neyra Behi

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