MacDowell, Marian (1857–1956)

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated

MacDowell, Marian (1857–1956)

American founder of the MacDowell Colony for artists and writers in Peterborough, New Hampshire . Name variations: Marian Griswold Nevins MacDowell; Marian Griswold MacDowell; Mrs. Edward MacDowell. Born Marian Griswold Nevins on November 22, 1857, in New York City; died in Los Angeles, California, on August 23, 1956; daughter of David Henry Nevins (a banker and broker) and Cornelia (Perkins) Nevins; briefly attended a school in New London, Connecticut, but was largely educated by her father; married Edward Alexander MacDowell (a composer and musician), on July 9, 1884 (died 1908); no children.

Awarded several honorary degrees; Pictorial Review 's $5000 Achievement Award (1923); Henry Hadley Medal for outstanding service to music (1942); National Institute of Arts and Letters grant for distinguished service to the arts (1949).

The founder and tireless champion for nearly half a century of the MacDowell Colony, America's premier artists' colony, Marian MacDowell was over 50 when she began the work for which she is honored. A country retreat where painters, writers, sculptors and musicians can work within the luxury of solitude and uninterrupted days in private studio cabins, the MacDowell Colony is unparalleled in this country in its fostering of artistic creation. At the dawn of the 21st century, nearly 100 years after the colony's inception, Marian MacDowell's contribution to the world continues to thrive.

Born in New York City on November 22, 1857, MacDowell was descended through her father from Scottish ancestors who had immigrated to Connecticut in the 1720s and, through her mother, from English forebears who had arrived in 1636. The family was wealthy, and when Marian was three years old her father David Henry Nevins retired from banking and moved with his wife and five children to Shaw Farm in Waterford, Connecticut. In 1866, her mother Cornelia Perkins Nevins died. Already a solemn child, Marian readily shouldered the additional responsibility of helping to care for her two younger sisters. During this time, she also went to a school in New London which two of her aunts founded, but her attendance there was brief and her education was largely accomplished by her father, himself a self-educated man.

Becoming interested in the piano at age ten and showing musical promise, Marian took instruction from an aunt for four years and decided to pursue a career as a pianist. In 1880, she went to Germany intending to study piano under Clara Schumann . Instead, she met Edward Alexander MacDowell, a musician and composer, and received musical instruction from him for two and a half years. Edward MacDowell would eventually gain distinction as the first internationally known American composer. Their relationship developed beyond that of teacher and student, and they were married in New York City on July 9, 1884.

Upon her marriage, Marian MacDowell sublimated her own musical aspirations and entered her husband's orbit. The couple returned to Germany and MacDowell became her husband's housekeeper, secretary, scribe, critic, booster and, during their four years in Germany, financial supporter, for they lived on an inheritance from her mother. In 1886, MacDowell suffered what is variously reported as either a stillbirth or a miscarriage. Due to complications, she was unable to bear any more children. A series of depressions and illnesses followed that would linger and recur; some biographers have speculated that the origins of these can be found in MacDowell's sorrow and "frustration."

In 1888, the MacDowells moved to Boston, where they lived for eight years. Her supporting role continued, while Edward made a living teaching piano and giving recitals. He became the first professor of music at Columbia University in New York in 1896, and for the next two years also conducted the city's Mendelssohn Glee Club. After a clash with university officials which was well reported at the time, Edward MacDowell resigned his professorship in 1904, and soon thereafter began to suffer ill health. Afflicted by syphilis, he deteriorated rapidly. A fund-raising drive was begun for his benefit by the Mendelssohn Glee Club, but he died in 1908, before it was completed. On MacDowell's recommendation, the money (some $30,000) was contributed to the Edward MacDowell Memorial Association. This had been created in 1907, to establish an artists' colony at Hillcrest, the MacDowell summer estate in Peterborough, New Hampshire, where Edward had worked. It had been his wish that the peaceful setting be opened to other artists as well, and so Marian MacDowell had deeded title to the new association, while retaining lifetime rights. Thus was created the MacDowell Colony.

Although still locked in service to her husband's memory, MacDowell became zealous about the management and promotion of the Colony, pursuing both with vigor and skill. From 1910, she traveled throughout the United States—until she was past 80—giving recitals of her husband's compositions and explaining and publicizing the Colony's mission. With solicited donations and the proceeds of her lecture and recital tours, MacDowell was able to expand the Colony from 135 acres to more than 700, incorporating a farm to assist with provisions and building a library and additional studios and dormitories (although days are spent alone, down to box lunches deposited on studio doorsteps, participants sleep in group dormitories). Those who could not scrape together even the token cost of room and board were granted "scholarships." Artists who had been given the solitude to work there found success in their fields, thereby adding luster to the Colony's name, and ran the gamut from sculptor Helen Farnsworth Mears , who attended in 1907, to artists such as Amy Cheney Beach , Aaron Copland, Elinor Wylie, Willa Cather , James Baldwin, Thornton Wilder, Edward Arlington Robinson, Virgil Thomson, and DuBose Heyward. The Colony was a significant part of the artistic milieu in the United States by the 1930s.

Marian MacDowell was forced to retire from active management at the Colony in her late 80s. Her health was poor and her eyesight nearly gone. She spent the last ten years of her life in Los Angeles, living with Nina Maud Richardson (1885–1969), who had been her friend and assistant for more than three decades. Marian MacDowell died at Richardson's home at the age of 98, on August 23, 1956. She was buried beside her husband's grave near the MacDowell Colony.


Bailey, Brooke. The Remarkable Lives of 100 Women Artists. Holbrook, MA: Bob Adams, 1994.

Rubinstein, Charlotte Streifer. American Women Artists. Boston, MA: G.K. Hall, 1982.

Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1980.


Some of Marian MacDowell's papers are held by the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College. Others are held at the Library of Congress; unpublished memoirs and extensive correspondence of Marian and Edward MacDowell are in the Music Division, and files of the MacDowell Colony are in the Manuscript Division.

Ellen Dennis French , freelance writer in biography, Murrieta, California