The work of Anglo-Scottish artists Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh (1864-1933) and Frances Macdonald MacNair (1873-1921) went largely uninvestigated until the end of the twentieth century, despite their innovative contributions to the Glasgow School aesthetic. The height of their careers saw high-profile architectural collaborations with Margaret’s husband, the celebrated Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and participation in significant European avant-garde exhibitions of their time. Joint and individual work produced during the Macdonald sisters’ Glasgow School of Art period (1890-1894), and the years immediately after when the two shared a studio in the city, have been recognized by historians of the artists as provocative images that aggressively subvert academic tradition and address ideas of gender and identity. The foundational scholarship of Jude Burkhauser, and major contributions by Janice Helland, Timothy Neat and Pamela Robertson, are all credited with lifting the Macdonald sisters into the conversation of the avant-garde Glasgow Style in Scotto-Continental Art Nouveau.

While Christian motifs have been identified within the artists’ oeuvre, this study seeks to interrogate patterns of that iconography, suggesting its use as a formal program and conceptual vehicle to create a system of recognizable symbols. The examined images point to the sisters’ development of a new idiom designed to contain signifiers by reinterpreting or repurposing traditional symbols and compositional arrangements. Due in part to early periods of exposure to environments that encouraged both a vital educational foundation and the privilege of creative independence to stray from stylistic tradition, Margaret and Frances produced individual and collaborative works that are explicit revisions of biblical narrative images, as well as more ambiguously secular representations that include subtle symbolic references. In observing these formal patterns in the context of distortions to Christian pictorial conventions, the Macdonald sisters’ works become a more conceptually complex system of personal assertions for public meditation. Much of this work in the 1890s can be examined as a formal symbolic program conflating traditional symbols and arrangements with contemporary ideology to produce a series of new icons that use Christian imagery as signifiers in a system of repeated, recognizable formal elements.

Date of publication

Spring 4-12-2021

Document Type




Persistent identifier


Committee members

Elizabeth Lisot-Nelson, Ph.D.; Kaia Magnusen, Ph.D.; Mandy Link, Ph.D.


Master of Art in Art History