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The Scottish Sisters Who Conceived Of Art Nouveau


Margaret and Frances MacDonald, among history’s all-but-forgotten characters, were also among the artists to establish the aesthetic principles of Art Nouveau.

There’s very nearly an essential femininity to Art Nouveau. It should come as no surprise then that two women, from Glasgow in Scotland, were among the creators who dictated the aesthetic base of the artistic movement which illuminated Europe between 1890 and 1915. Although today Margaret and Frances MacDonald are all but unknown, the Glasgow school of which they were a part, was an important circle of modern Scottish artists. Among them were Charles Rennie Mackintosh (who brought Phantom-Furniture to life) and Herbert MacNair, the respective spouses of the sisters.

While in Europe a new art (hence the name) came to be, one school took elements of nature, the silhouettes of plants and mythological motifs as inspiration. The four Scottish artists studied at the Glasgow School of Art – and hence their nickname “The Glasgow Four.” Inspired, among other things, by Celtic spirituality and Victorian Puritanism, they created graphic works abounding in elongated, graceful silhouettes, with dreamlike and ethereal color schemes and which also reveal some early elements of modern art, such as the use of symmetry and geometric figuration.

The art of the two sisters and their portrayals of the female figure, echoed their own lives. At the time, women who studied art at all did so for mere personal pleasure. (Perhaps a few pursued art to hold talks during tea.) The MacDonalds made art their way of life. The activity led them both to commercial and intellectual success. And this was revolutionary. Upon finishing their studies, Frances and Margaret opened their own workshop. Their posters, advertisements, watercolors, and work in metal and textile sold prolifically, and their works were exhibited throughout Europe. Known for their dazzling work, the artists were also known for their sisterhood. Many early works were signed by both and many other works would never be attributed to one sister or the other.

When the MacDonald sisters eventually married, Frances and Herbert moved to Liverpool where they pursued an academic and family life. They continued producing works almost exclusively for their home. For their part, Margaret and Charles stayed in Glasgow, where he was to become a famous architect and furniture designer. Today Charles Mackintosh is perhaps the best-remembered among all of them, although he and his wife Margaret remained professional colleagues throughout their lives.

Ethereal, often nearly mystical, the works of Margaret and Frances MacDonald deeply influenced the work of other artists of the period, among them Hans Hoffmann, Koloman Moser, and even Gustav Klimt – all of whom are better known today than the MacDonald sisters. The birthplace of Art Nouveau may well have been Vienna, and the sister-artists lived too far away to stay at the center of that movement. Still, the delicacy, strength and, above all, the originality of their style was partly responsible for one of European modernism’s most enchanting movements.

Via Daily Jstor.

a paradox

A Paradox, Frances MacDonald (1905).


the mysterious garden

The Mysterious Garden, Margaret MacDonald (1911).



Spring, Frances MacDonald (c. 1905).


Opera of the Winds

​Opera of the Winds, Margaret MacDonald (1903).


Images:  Public Domain / Public Domain

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