Macomber, Mary Lizzie (1861–1916)

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Macomber, Mary Lizzie (1861–1916)

American artist . Born in Fall River, Massachusetts, on August 21, 1861; died in Boston, Massachusetts, on February 4, 1916; studied drawing in Fall River with a local artist and later for a year at the school of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

A descendant of Pilgrims and Quakers, Mary Lizzie Macomber was born on August 21, 1861, in Fall River, Massachusetts. At age 19, she began taking instruction in painting from Robert S. Dunning, a major force in the Fall River school of still-life painting. For the next three years, Macomber spent much of her time executing paintings of flowers and fruit under Dunning's tutelage. She next studied at the school of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, concentrating on painting figures, although ill health forced her to drop out after one year. Three years later, she studied briefly with Boston artist Frank Duveneck, after which she opened her own studio in Boston.

Among Macomber's earliest work in the Pre-Raphaelite style for which she is known were such paintings as Love Awakening Memory and Love's Lament, produced in 1891 and 1893, respectively. Characterized by an abundance of Madonnas, Mary Magdalenes, and Annunciations, Macomber's early paintings depicted these sacred images with "sweet, solemn sadness, illuminated by immortal faith" and "delicate coloring … with refined, spiritual conceptions," according to critics of the day. She exhibited over 20 paintings at the annual National Academy of Design shows between 1889 and 1902, and in 1897 won the Dodge Prize at the National Academy exhibition in New York for her St. Catherine, painted in 1896 and similar in style to the work of Sir Edward Burne-Jones. Her allegorical and symbolical panels, executed in a rarefied, decorative manner, were much admired.

The surge in Pre-Raphaelite painting during America's Gilded Age was fueled by some artists' disdain for the new industrial society. Painters of this school, two of the earliest proponents of which were Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais, harkened back to an earlier, less complicated era in an almost religious attempt to appeal to what they saw as a nobler spirit in man. Macomber and others of the Pre-Raphaelite school tried to emulate the style of some of the greatest artists of the Renaissance.

In 1903, a fire ripped through Macomber's studio in Boston, destroying much of her work. In the wake of this disaster she traveled to England, the Netherlands, and France to view firsthand the works of the great masters. When she returned to the United States her new work, which utilized broader brushwork and an innovative use of lighting, showed the influence of Rembrandt. Among the more memorable of her later paintings were Night and Her Daughter and Memory Comforting Shadow. Much of her later work was in portraiture. On February 4, 1916, Mary Macomber died in Boston. At her funeral in Boston's historic Old South Church, hundreds of artists and art lovers gathered to mourn her passing and to recognize the distinctive place she had created for herself in the world of American art.


McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

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

Don Amerman , freelance writer, Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania