The Art Nouveau Sisters

Glasgow School of Art Poster by Frances Macdonald, Margaret Macdonald, J. Herbert McNair (1885) | PC: MCAD Library

Glasgow School of Art Poster by Frances Macdonald, Margaret Macdonald, J. Herbert McNair (1885) | PC: MCAD Library

Memento Artem

Elegant, refined, organic, and mystical: descriptors of the Art Nouveau style. When most people think of this style, they think of Alphonse Mucha or Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Although their contributions to the movement are important, the pioneers of the movement included two sisters from Glasgow, Scotland. 

Margaret and Frances Macdonald were both born, raised, and educated in Glasgow to an upper-middle-class family. Margaret entered the Glasgow School of Art in 1884, Frances joining her in 1890. It’s here, that the sisters trained to become professional artists.

At Glasgow School of Art, the sisters met their classmates Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Herbert MacNair. They became friends, forming a group called the Glasgow Four. Here, the group experienced Art Nouveau as it was taking shape. Inspiration came from Celtic spirituality and Victorian Puritanism. They created graphic works that included elongated forms and silhouettes. Their color palettes were light, metallic, and neutral. The inspiration and palette, together, empowered them to create mystical and ethereal compositions that were groundbreaking at the time.

Approaching their graduation from school, the sisters opened up a studio. Together, they produced a large number of works that not only included commercial works like posters and advertisements, but also pieces of fine art and craftworks like watercolors, metalwork, and textiles. They were artistic powerhouses that knew how to work together in harmony. They often would co-sign works and would present their pieces together across Europe. 

An excellent example of their commercial work while creating together is their poster for the Glasgow School of Art. Two long feminine figures create a vertical line in the design. They have geometric attributes in their features. This creates a sense of them being androgynous in nature. However, they, along with other parts of the design are in perfect symmetry. There is a definite sense of the Art Nouveau style with it’s organic and plant-like forms around the figures. 

However, the sisters’ harmonious relationship changed and they drifted apart, Frances marrying Herbert and moving to Liverpool and Margaret remaining in Glasgow after marrying Charles. They remained like this until 1900 when they found themselves being brought together once again. The Glasgow Four were invited to exhibit their respective pieces together in Vienna, where they found huge success and sold the entirety of their works before going their separate ways again. 

Still, I come back to the Macdonald sisters and their art. They were half of a core group that helped further a major art movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I can’t help but notice a distinctive feminine, yet powerful imprint upon the movement that the sisters may have influenced. The famous artist Gustav Klimt, during the 1900 Vienna Secession Exhibition, became enchanted with the sister’s work and is said to have been influenced by them and the rest of the Glasgow Four. This goes to show that even behind the famous artists in art history we can find of men and women artists that inspired them to create greatness.

Cameron Cizek is a junior studying computing.