40 Chapter 11 – Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh

Art Nouveau

Collin Johnson

Audio recording of chapter available here:

The May Queen, 1900.
Margaret Macdonald Macintosh, The May Queen, mural, 1900

Margaret Macdonald (1864-1933) was a Scottish artist who was specialized primarily in Design. She spent most of her art career collaborating with other artists, and her collaboration work has brought a lot of scrutiny as to whether she was as skilled an artist as some claim or if she simply clung onto the success of her very skilled husband, Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Many factors need to be examined to determine whether Margaret was deserving of the status of a great artist. Societal norms and any misogynistic viewpoints could have played a big part in a lot of the criticism Margaret Macdonald faced in her career and even after she passed away as well. Was she a talented artist who suffered from the opinions of critics who seemed to be against her succeeding or was she overrated and lived in the shadow of the success of her husband?

Margaret MacDonald Macintosh, The White Rose and The Red Rose, paint on glass, 1902

Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh started her art training with her younger sister, Frances, in 1890-1891 at the Glasgow School of Art which was one of the top art schools in Britain. They learned various art styles such as design and drawing and then moving onto metal work which both were very skilled in.[1] Over time, Margaret proved to be skilled in watercolour, metalwork, embroidery, and textiles and she and her sister would collaborate on many pieces of work and they drew their inspiration from Celtic imagery, literature, symbolism, and folklore.[2]

It was during her time at Glasgow where Margaret would meet the man who would become her husband, Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Margaret and her Sister, Frances, would collaborate with two men and the four of them would be called the “Glasgow Four”.[3] The group would collaborate on many pieces of work, some received well and others not. Scottish Critics took offense to the conventionalized figures used in their work, labeling the group, “The Spook School.”[4] Collaboration was big for Margaret Macdonald, more than half of her Art came from working with another Artist. In her thesis, Kristie Powell explains that collaboration was essential for any aspiring female artist.[5] This could be due to that men were predominantly involved in all of the “important art” (architecture) so for women in design, collaborating with a male artist was a good way to get your art seen at all.

Margaret MacDonald Macintosh, Seven Princesses, gesso on panel, 1907

Charles Rennie Mackintosh started at Glasgow in 1884. Margaret Macdonald and him would develop an artistic relationship with the Glasgow Four and then later the two developed a romantic relationship and started collaborating art between the two of them. They designed houses for people, focusing on not building a machine for them to live in but a work of art.[6] They designed thirteen buildings and architectural designs, Macdonald’s roles in these were her including one or more pieces to an overall theme. Charles himself vouched for her involvement in these designs and both Artists achieved their greatest success and critical claim during the peak of their collaboration with each other.[7] Many would say Margaret Macdonald benefited from working with Mackintosh but it is clear that there was mutual benefit for the two of them. In a society that heavily favoured masculinity, one can not deny that Margaret Macdonald played a key role in her husband’s success.

Margaret MacDonald Macintosh, Opera of the Winds, gesso on panel, c 1903

When discussing the criticism Margaret Macdonald faced, one must not forget the gender norms that were common when she was an artist. Pamela H. Simpson talks about these norms in her review of the book The Studios of Frances and Margaret Macdonald written by Janice Helland. Pamela Simpson talks about how she believes misogyny of the critics played a role in how Margaret Macdonald’s art was received. Architecture was deemed masculine while design was labeled as feminine and thus architecture was held to a higher standard then design was.[8] This saw Charles Rennie Mackintosh being viewed as a hero of architecture. When critiquing their collaborated work, Margaret is already at a disadvantage when her style of art is seen as lesser to that of her husband. It does not help that her husband is also very skilled and when comparing how much she contributed, critics already see her art as less of a contribution simply because it is the feminine style of art. One would need to not critique the style of art she is creating but critique how well the art itself is. Many sources mention this patriarchal structure during this time period and if Art did not conform to that structure, this may be a reason for it not being received well by male critics.

It is well known that Margaret Macdonald was known for using symbolism in her art. Macdonald liked to do watercolour paintings, which she preferred over oil painting even though oil painting was deemed more important or more masculine. Janice Helland discusses this symbolism and how it is representative of women during this time period, particularly the silence of women.[9]  It discusses the lack of rights women had compared to their male counterparts and the patriarchal norms that favoured masculinity over feminism. In Margaret Macdonald’s work Pool of Silence, a woman is looking into her reflection in water and holding a finger to her mouth, asking for silence.  There are three faces in this drawing and Critics had written that this drawing was the “dead figure of a beautiful woman”.[10] It was common for Margaret Macdonald to focus on women and death and critics agreed that this piece had fulfilled that purpose. Margaret Macdonald used her art to voice the lack of equality between men and women and this may have been why critics may have not liked her art because it challenged the norms that existed then.

Visit the National Gallery of Canada link below to see Margaret Macdonald Macintosh’s Pool of Silence drawing:

Margaret Macdonald Macintosh, Pool of Silence, watercolour and gouache with other pigments on wove paper, 1913. https://www.gallery.ca/collection/artwork/pool-of-silence



González Mínguez, María Teresa. “Dark/Masculine—Light/Feminine: How Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret MacDonald Changed Glasgow School of Art” IES Manuel E. Patarroyo https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/61919238.pdf

Helland, Janice. “The Critics and the Arts and Crafts: The Instance of Margaret Macdonald and Charles Rennie Mackintosh.” Art History 17, no. 2 (June 1994): 209-27. https://eds-a-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.ardc.talonline.ca/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=1&sid=bcf3bfd1-c414-4560-98dd-efa4722e227c%40sdc-v-sessmgr02 .

Helland, Janice. “The “New Woman” in Fin-De-Siecle Art: Frances And Margaret Macdonald” Dissertation. University of Lethbridge, 1973. University of Victoria, 1984. http://dspace.library.uvic.ca/handle/1828/9511

Macdonald, Margaret. “Pool of Silence”. GBR, 1913. Drawing.  National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Accessed October 25, 2020. https://www.gallery.ca/collection/artwork/pool-of-silence

Panther, Patricia. “Margaret MacDonald: the talented other half of Charles Rennie Mackintosh.” BBC.Co.UK. Last modified January 10, 2011. http://www.bbc.co.uk/scotland/arts/margaret_macdonald_the_talented_other_half_of_charles_rennie_mackintosh.shtml

Powell, Kristie. “The Artist Couple”. Thesis. University of Cincinnati, 2010. https://etd.ohiolink.edu/!etd.send_file?accession=ucin1277497691&disposition=inline

Simpson, Pamela H.. “The Studios of Frances and Margaret Macdonald.” Women’s Art Journal 19, no. 1 (1996): 44-45. https://doi.org/10.2307/1358655 .

  1. Helland, Janice. “ The “New Woman” in Fin-De-Siecle Art: Frances And Margaret Macdonald”
  2. Panther, Patricia. " Margaret MacDonald: The Talented Other Half of Charles Rennie Mackintosh."
  3. Powell, Kristie. “ The Artist Couple”
  4. Powell, Kristie. “ The Artist Couple”
  5. Powell, Kristie. “ The Artist Couple”
  6. González Mínguez, María Teresa. “ Dark/Masculine—Light/Feminine: How Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret MacDonald Changed Glasgow School of Art ”
  7. Powell. “ Artist Couple ”
  8. Simpson, Pamela H.. " The Studios of Frances and Margaret Macdonald ."
  9. Helland, Janice. "The Critics and the Arts and Crafts: The Instance of Margaret Macdonald and Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Pg 252
  10. Helland. 252, 253


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