Frances MacDonald

(Last Updated On: January 12, 2018)

Initially I started with a single image which Christian had sent me, wondering if I knew anything else about it. It was by Frances MacDonald, and I didn’t, but I did immediately notice its resemblance to the work of another artist frequently associated with both the Art Nouveau and Symbolist movements: Charles Rennie Mackintosh. This was no accident. MacDonald was a member of the Glasgow art collective known as The Four, which also included Mackintosh—easily the best known of them—as well as Frances’s better-known sister, Margaret MacDonald (who married Mackintosh) and Frances’ own husband, James Herbert McNair.

The men and women initially knew each other from being students at the Glasgow School of Art, where they quickly took up with each other. In examining the work of all four, it’s easy to see why Charles ultimately gravitated to Margaret while James favored Frances. Charles and Margaret’s work is characterized by tight expressive lines, bold geometrical patterns and intricate detail while James and Frances preferred a looser, muddier style which was, nonetheless, no less elegant than that of their more celebrated compatriots. This style arises most surely from their preferred medium: watercolors.  And all four were clearly influenced by the Celtic motifs of their native country of Scotland.

Of the four, it appears to be Frances’s art which most frequently makes use of children as subjects, girls especially, like those in the scenes below. The first, A Paradox, is the image I received from Christian. It would seem to be a wedding procession, with the nude young bridesmaids or flower girls parading close to the betrothed couple. The scene evokes or references antiquity, where small children often went without clothing up until about age 7 or 8 or so.

Frances MacDonald – A Paradox (1905)

Frances MacDonald – Child in a Rose Bowl

Frances MacDonald – Sleeping Princess (1909)

Frances MacDonald – Sleeping Princess (1909)(detail)

Unfortunately, only a fraction of Frances’s overall work still exists, as her husband destroyed much of it after her untimely demise at the age of 48. One wonders why he felt the urge to do such a destructive act. Was it out of grief, or something more base like jealousy? Perhaps she even requested he do this if she passed on before him, the same way Lewis Carroll requested of his relatives the destruction of the remainder of his photographic work. I simply don’t know, but whatever the case, the world was no doubt cheated of some truly wonderful art.

Note: citations for some of these images credit MacDonald under her married name, Frances McNair.  -Ed.

5 thoughts on “Frances MacDonald

    • I am sorry, but I do not get it. That is true that in antiquity children often ran around naked until puberty if the weather permitted, but I am not sure if the custom of bridesmaids or flower girls dates back to ancient times, and even if so, I am not convinced if such young children could act as bridesmaids many centuries ago.

      • Well, we have to do a little digging, but the evidence shall be clear to us soon enough. In an article on the Simple Pleasures blog, Tara writes, “The institution of incorporating bridesmaids and groomsmen into a wedding ceremony dates all the way back to ancient Rome. These highly-honored wedding guests wore matching attire, with the bridesmaids fashioning their hair into soft curls that hung down their backs accompanied by a simple headband. These styles are frequently seen in ancient Roman works of art.”

        So far, so good. Now, it should be remembered that in antiquity, people frequently married very young, often in their early teens. This was especially true for nobles (commoner males often had to build up a decent career and estate before a girl would accept his proposal). Given that, bridesmaids of the day certainly would’ve been young. To qualify as a “maid” in the old days, one had to be an unmarried virgin, and in ancient days an available maid(en) would not have stayed that way for long. In ancient Rome, 14 was about the average age for girls to marry (12 was the legal age of consent for girls, 14 for boys, though males were frequently significantly older than their brides for the reason specified above.) Bridesmaids, then, would have been around the same age or younger.

        Now, if we look at the history of the flower girl, we find that she is every bit as traditional as the bridesmaid. In Roman weddings, and on through the Medieval and Renaissance eras, these young girls usually carried a bundle of wheat rather than flowers, or sometimes a bundle of garlic, as wheat was a symbol of fertility, and thus the bride’s womb (and perhaps the couple’s pocketbook as well) were being blessed not only by the presence of the wheat, but by the flower girl themselves. However, other historians suggest that the flower girl really traces her history to the British aisles, though still as far back as antiquity. Given that our artist here often incorporated themes from the history of her native land, Scotland, this may very well be what she intended.

        Now, for the final piece of this historical puzzle, the girls’ nudity, it would’ve been entirely normal for children below a certain age to be nude in any number of settings, provided the weather was warm enough. These days most weddings take place in the summer months, and that would also have been true for any outdoor weddings in the olden days. Well, perhaps girls did usually dress up more at ceremonies like weddings. Mrs. MacDonald might be taking some liberties here. It doesn’t much matter, because the nude girls in this case are as much metaphorical as historical. Artists of the 19th century were fairly obsessed with ancient Greece and Rome, and as such, they idealized it. Nudity was very much a part of that idealization, from the perfection of the athletic adult form that the ancients themselves idealized to the nude child, which symbolized not only the innocence of Man but the idyllic nature of civilization’s earliest stage.

        • Thanks a lot for your detailed research and analysis. I do agree that in the antiquity bridesmaids could have been younger than today, although you have mentioned that they were probably around 12 (since it was the legal age of consent for girls in ancient Rome), while in the painting the girls are much younger, looking like 7-8 year old at most. On the other hand, they may actually represent flower girls. Moreover, as some historians suggest that the custom might have its origins in the British Isles, it makes sense to me concerning that the checkered garment and the hairstyle of the bridegroom seem more related to the British tradition than Roman antiquity (although I am not an expert in the history of clothing). The intention of paying tribute to traditional Scottish, or rather Celtic themes is plausible. While we do not know much about clothing of inhabitants of the Isles in the antiquity, the Romans reported that the Celts went naked into battle covered only with designs drawn on their bodies, trusting in the protection which nature gives. Polybius, a Greek historian of the Hellenistic period, noted that the Celts believed that to disrobe would expand their personal life force (what we today think of as an aura), and that with this expansion, they became one with nature and the divine. While for many of us the climate of Great Britain may seem too cold for walking naked, we shall bear in mind that, as Aristotle claimed, the Celts used to plunge their newborn children into a cold stream and dress them very lightly, in order to make them healthy. So perhaps Celtic children were naked more often than we think, as the part of child hardening.

          You are also right that the nudity of the girls in the painting may be more metaphorical than historical. The idyllic nakedness can also be related to ritual nudity in modern Paganism, which began in the 19th century in reference to classical revivalism (today Wiccans have even institutionalized nudity, calling it “skyclad”). Finally, it has to be stressed that even scrupulously adhering to historical facts the attitudes toward nudity in general and specifically toward child nudity in antiquity kept changing with time and from place to place. While in the Old Kingdom of Egypt children of all social classes were going around stark naked all the time until puberty, and it would have been bizarre for an ancient Egyptian to see a dressed child, in the Roman Empire the sight of a naked child of a Roman citizen could have been frowned upon (although public nudity of slaves was acceptable).

  1. The style of these pieces seemed familiar to me and a quick check revealed that Child in A Rose Bowl was used for the cover of Suzanne Ost’s excellent book Child Pornography and Sexual Grooming: Legal and Societal Responses (2009). This book is on my recommended reading list. Because of the legal subject matter, the discourse can be a bit dry, but it is a cogent analysis of the hysteria about child pornography and molestation. Ost contends that the conventional wisdom on protecting children in these matters serves only to hamper a child’s freedom of self-expression and does nothing (or in fact, hinders efforts) to apply real protections.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *