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Biography

WILLIAM STARBUCK MACY (1853-1945) was a Massachusetts-born painter whose tranquil, naturalistic landscapes of primarily rustic New England settings earned him considerable attention and an ardent following of admirers during the latter part of the nineteenth and early portion of the twentieth centuries. His work merited the distinction of being consistently selected for display at several of America’s most prominent annual exhibitions, as well as the Paris Salon of 1878.

Macy was born on September 11, 1853, in the historic Massachusetts community of New Bedford, which at the time of his birth was the nation’s preeminent whaling port, serving as the home to over 300 ships engaged in the industry (many of them featured in the popular maritime art of this era). The author Herman Melville, in his capacity as a merchant seaman, shipped out of New Bedford in 1841 aboard the whaling ship Acushnet; his experiences at sea influenced him to write the legendary novel, Moby-Dick (which includes extended passages describing life in New Bedford at this juncture in time). Also during this period, against the backdrop of the long and arduous struggle to abolish slavery in America, the residents of New Bedford turned their city into a covert “station” on the “Underground Railroad,” which in practice meant that New Bedford became a sanctuary city for fugitive slaves, including the noted abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass, who found safe haven in New Bedford from 1838 to 1841. Though not generally referred to as an “artists’ colony,” New Bedford, particularly in the 19th century, witnessed many of South Coast New England’s most accomplished painters plying their craft in its surroundings; Mary Jean Blasdale, in her book, Artists of New Bedford: A Biographical Dictionary (New Bedford, Mass.: Old Dartmouth Historical Society, 1990), elaborated on the city’s rich and diverse artistic heritage: “New Bedford always fostered some type of art: portraits of prominent citizens, ship portraits for the wealthy whaling merchants, historical representations for the well-educated, local landscapes and seascapes in praise of nature, or potboilers churned out by the dozen to supply art for the homes of those of more moderate means. Artistic expressionism has been present in the city from the late eighteenth century to today. . . . An integral part of the history of the city lies within its art work. These artists tell a story of a city that had few rivals in the number of artists who gained inspiration in its environs; and these artists created a tremendous variety of works using diverse techniques and styles.” The long list of notable painters who spent time in New Bedford includes Clifford W. Ashley, Albert Bierstadt, William Bradford, Charles H. and Robert Swain Gifford, Benjamin Russell, Albert Pinkham Ryder, Dwight W. Tryon, Albert Van Beest, and William Allen Wall.

Though born in New Bedford, and living and working there for a period of time as an adult, William Starbuck Macy could trace his ancestry back to the earliest settlers and settlements of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. His family tree is rooted in the arrival in America around 1635 of Thomas Macy (1608-1682), who is historically credited with being the first non-Native American settler of Nantucket Island. Thomas Macy was born in Wiltshire County, England, and initially settled in Newbury, Massachusetts, before his move in 1640 to Salisbury, five miles up the Merrimack River. In 1649, Macy moved across the Powow River to “Salisbury New Town” (later Amesbury), where he became one of the town’s founding fathers and where he built what is now the historic Macy-Colby House, a saltbox structure which he sold in 1654 to another early settler, Anthony Colby, and which was extensively modified in the early 1740s by one of Colby’s descendants, Obadiah Colby. Because of its age and association with two of Massachusetts’ most significant early families, the property is now a museum listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In the summer of 1657, Macy, a Baptist who was often at odds with the Calvinist-leaning Puritan Church, made the fateful decision to offer shelter to four Quakers during a severe rainstorm. This act of kindness was nevertheless forbidden by the Puritan Church, which at the time was the political as well as spiritual center of the community, and which had promulgated a 1657 law forbidding the harboring of “any of the cursed sects of Quakers.” Having been reported to the authorities by his neighbors, Macy was fined and admonished by the governor for his conduct (though he was later to be immortalized for his courage by the 19th century poet John Greenleaf Whittier in his poem “The Exiles”). In 1659, following many years of conflict with the local Puritan leaders, Macy became part of a group that purchased land on the then unsettled (by Europeans) Nantucket Island from the deed-holder, Thomas Mayhew (the Governor of Martha’s Vineyard and Macy’s cousin). That same year, Macy - who eventually became a Chief Magistrate on the island and resided there with his family until his death in 1682 - became the first of the original group of purchaser/settlers to move permanently to the island, followed in 1660 by Edward Starbuck, another of William Starbuck Macy’s progenitors; the Starbuck family’s influence on the island was profoundly enhanced by Mary (Coffin) Starbuck (1645-1717) and her husband Nathaniel, who led the early Quaker movement on Nantucket. (It should be noted that, although Thomas Macy never deviated from his staunch Baptist beliefs, his widow Sarah converted to Quakerism sometime before her death at age 94 in 1706.) The first official meetings on the island of the “Society of Friends” took place in the Starbuck’s home in 1708, with Mary serving as an elder and her son, Nathaniel Jr., as a clerk. Within the Quaker community the Starbuck’s residence took on the title, “Parliament House,” in recognition of its special status. By 1762, there were approximately 2,400 practicing Quakers on the island, and the movement - with the Starbucks amongst those at the forefront - grew strong politically and financially; many were involved in the lucrative whaling industry. (In the aforementioned novel Moby-Dick, in addition to an important character being named “Starbuck,” the ship’s owners are Quakers.) Members of the “Society” constituted the majority demographic on the island for most of the 18th century before declining in the 19th, and their devotion to simplicity and strict adherence to traditional ways influenced many aspects of life on Nantucket.

Keeping pace with the changing exigencies of the whaling trade, William Starbuck Macy’s more contemporaneous relatives departed Nantucket for New Bedford, where Macy was born and raised, receiving his formal academic education in the New Bedford public school system. Recognized early on as being exceptionally gifted, Macy was accepted for admission to the artistic curriculum at New York City’s National Academy of Design at the age of sixteen.  There, he befriended two classmates who would go on to historically significant careers as artists and educators: William Merritt Chase and Frank Duveneck. Chase, besides being an award-winning painter of plein-air landscapes, portraits, and interior scenes (Johanna McBrien, editor-in-chief of Antiques and Fine Arts Magazine, called him “one of America’s most recognized impressionist artists”), was also arguably America’s most important art instructor during this period, opening and operating the Chase School of Art in New York City (today known as the Parsons School of Design) and the Shinnecock Hills Summer School in eastern Long Island, as well as teaching at some of the country’s most prestigious art academies and arranging artistic workshops abroad. The first retrospective of his work in three decades (William Merritt Chase: A Modern Master) was recently held at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and is currently on display in Venice. In a photoblog for the exhibition, D. Frederick Baker, one of the show’s co-curators, wrote that “during his lifetime, Chase was one of the great American modern masters. He passed the “modern” baton to others as a teacher . . . including Georgia O’Keefe, Marsden Hartley, Arthur B. Carles, Charles Sheeler, and Joseph Stella.”  Frank Duveneck, for his part, was also one of the most highly influential art instructors of the late 19th century. Upon his departure from the National Academy of Design (where eventually he was named a Full Academician), he traveled to Munich, where he distinguished himself at the Royal Academy, winning prizes and mastering the bravura brush technique practiced by the Munich School. His figurative paintings and portraits embrace a wide array of styles, including Realism, Social Realism, and Impressionism, and, following a successful exhibition in Boston in 1875, he returned to Munich to teach, becoming a celebrated figure there (and later, in Florence and Venice as well) and attracting a group of young and talented American students who were drawn to his exuberance and enthusiasm; “Duveneck’s Boys,” as his acolytes came to be known, included Otto Bacher, Joseph DeCamp, John Twachtman, and Theodore Wendel, all of them future teachers who extended Duveneck’s legacy to such artists as George Bellows, Robert Henri, and Edward Potthast. Whether Macy himself received formal instruction from his two renowned classmates is not confirmed by the historical record, though many sources posit that notion. In her book, William Merritt Chase: A Modern Master (Washington, D.C.: The Phillips Collection; New Haven, Conn. and London, England:Yale University Press, 2016), Elsa Smithgall, another of the co-curators of the aforementioned Chase exhibition, provides an excerpt from a letter written by Chase on July 11, 1877, while he was living in Venice in a spartan three-room studio with Frank Duveneck and John Henry Twachtman; the recipient of the letter, according to Smithgall, was Macy, who at the time was residing in either Munich or Paris. “I am perfectly delighted with Venice,” wrote Chase. “It is the most artistic place that I ever was in.” Despite the brevity of the published passage, and the letter’s current status as the lone example of recorded correspondence between Macy and Chase (or Macy and Duveneck, for that matter), the letter nevertheless reveals heretofore unsubstantiated evidence of an ongoing relationship between the artists.

After leaving the National Academy of Design, Macy continued his artistic education in Munich, to which he traveled in either 1873 or 1875 (depending upon the particular source referenced), supporting himself as an agent for a New York and London-based art dealer while receiving instruction from the the Russian-born painter Wilhelm Velton, who had studied at the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts before moving to Munich in 1870 in order to enroll in the renowned Munich Academy of Fine Arts, where his instructors included the famous German painter Wilhelm von Diez. Velton’s primary area of focus was historical genre scenes featuring the life of the European light cavalrymen known as “hussars,” as well as vivid depictions of wild horses. His paintings were well-received in Munich, and he participated in many of the important international exhibitions of the period. Today, his work - which remains popular among private collectors and has been successfully auctioned at Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Dorotheum - can be found at the Academy of Fine Arts in Buffalo (New York), the Municipal Gallery and the National Gallery in Munich, the National Gallery in Prague, and the San Francisco Art Museum. While under Velton’s tutelage Macy painted a large landscape entitled Aux Environs de Munich, which in 1878 was accepted for exhibition at the prestigious Paris Salon. (Lois Marie Fink, in her book American Art at the Nineteenth Century Paris Salons, lists Macy’s address at the time of the Salon as Paris, the only mention in the historical record as his having resided there.) In 1880, Aux Environs de Munich was on display at the Hahnemann Hospital Fair at Madison Square Garden in New York City when the walls of the venue suddenly crumbled under the weight of its contents, causing several fatalities and the destruction of many important paintings. (Miraculously, Macy’s painting was spared.) At the time, the painting was owned by J. Henry Harper of the Harper and Brothers publishing house in New York City, who, along with other prominent members of this powerful and influential American family of publishers such as J. Abner Harper (who also procured one of Macy’s early oils for his highly-regarded private collection) as well as Harry Harper, became some of Macy’s most important patrons: in 1879, following Macy’s return to America from Europe, Harry Harper afforded him the opportunity to tour the Dakotas in the company of noted author, poet, and religious scholar Henry Van Dyke, tasked with providing illustrations for a proposed book to be written by Van Dyke on the subject of the Battle of the Little Big Horn, in which a Native American army of Lakota Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe warriors led by Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull had devastated the American 7th Cavalry commanded by Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer, and which only three years earlier had shocked and mesmerized the nation during its Centennial Celebrations. Though it is historically unclear whether Van Dyke ever completed or published a book on the topic, the illustrations executed by Macy were featured in an 1880 issue of Harper’s Magazine. Also that year Macy was the subject of a laudatory profile appearing in The Art Journal, a London-based periodical (with an American edition) that was originally published in 1839 by Hodgson and Graves Publishers under the title The Art Union, and which attained the reputation as one of the most consequential Victorian-era magazines on art; the article spotlighting Macy was written by the well-respected period art historian G.W. Sheldon (1843-1914) and subsequently reprinted in his treatise, American Painters (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1881). Sheldon, who maintained a conservative outlook in the face of the era’s rapidly transformative stylistic evolution (the extent to which his views were shared by the Journal’s editorial board is unknown) hailed the young Macy (then only 27) as an artist who respected the foundational authority of the historical canon, which Sheldon believed to be an attribute generally lacking in the period’s younger generation of artists. “The traditions of the past,” he asserted, “as far as these have been approved by the practice of the best artists, were never so paramount in importance as they are now, when ‘Lo, here,’ and ‘Lo, there,’ are the watchwords of so many studios in the old lands and the new. To say of a young American painter, who has had a thorough training in Europe, that he is conservative in his methods and practices, is in these times conspicuously eulogistic. Mr. William Starbuck Macy is such a young painter.” Accompanying the text was a reproduction of Macy’s landscape, A Forest Scene, which had been recently exhibited at the National Academy of Design. Reviewing the painting, Sheldon expressed his view that “the snow-covered ground, from which lift tall birch-trees with many-tinted barks, is strong, simple, and full of tenderness as well as character.” Of Macy’s landscapes in general, Sheldon articulated the belief that they are “realistic in spirit, academic in drawing, honest in dealing with the scenes which they depict, and, as far as colour is concerned, not offensive to the laws of tonality as these are understood by the best modern painters,” adding that “in Mr. Macy’s pictures you see respect for authority, instead of a swinging away from Nature herself, and from the traditions of the schools . . . (his) landscapes in the future will doubtless increase in essential truth and in pictorial sentiment.” Moreover, the article disseminated the information that one of Macy’s landscapes, On the Seine, had of late been displayed at Reichard’s Gallery on Fifth Avenue in New York City, and that the previous winter Macy had held a sale of pictures that had been chiefly painted by Munich artists and collected by him during his residence abroad.

After arriving back in the United States from Europe in 1879, Macy established a studio in his hometown of New Bedford, Massachusetts; his residency there is confirmed with an 1879 listing in the New Bedford City Directory. Mrs. Elwyn G. Campbell, a South Coast (Massachusetts) art historian of the early twentieth century whose symposia on the artists of the “Old Dartmouth” area (the colonial-era term for the region inclusive of the communities now known as Fairhaven, Acushnet, Dartmouth, Westport, and New Bedford) offer what is often a valuable, first-person account of the period, employed the terms “celebrated” and “distinctive” to illustrate how Macy’s paintings were perceived by the art-buying public while he was living and working in New Bedford (1879-1890), during which time many significant private collections regarded the ownership of one of his landscapes - in particular, one of his winterscapes - to be a prized possession. Mrs. Campbell (whose recollections can be found online at millicentlibrary.com) also divulged the fact that Macy’s notoriety in the region was such that, for years following his departure from the area, the property containing his workshop on Cottage Street in New Bedford was still referred to by local residents as “The Studio.” Additionally, the New Bedford Art Club, a regionally-influential art association in existence from 1907-1920 whose annual showcases of the work of New Bedford artists were highly-anticipated events, put forth, in an article in the New Bedford Art Club Scrapbook, their opinion that Macy was “a truthful painter of local scenery,” who “was alike at home in the delineation of local scenes or amid the warmer tones of tropical climes.” In 1908, one of Macy’s much-heralded New England landscapes was displayed at the Club’s second annual exhibition. 

During the decade of the 1880s, Macy not only reconnected with his hometown of New Bedford, but with New York City as well, maintaining studios in both localities for the duration of the period; according to The Art Journal, Macy initially took a studio in the Young Men’s Christian Association (Y.M.C.A.) building, moving on from there in 1881 to a residence on East 23rd Street, which, according to multiple historical sources, Macy shared with fellow artist William Sartain (1843-1924), one of the founders of the Society of American Artists and a painter of Tonalist-styled landscapes and figures (he executed a well-known portraitof Edgar Allen Poe). The historical record suggests that this period in time was arguably Macy’s most productive one, and included his lone trip abroad in the aftermath of his Munich and Paris years; this took place in 1886, with the destination being the island of Bermuda. Though it is not known exactly how many paintings Macy produced while in Bermuda, thus far only one painting has surfaced at auction: the simply-titled Bermuda, considered by many to be the apogee of Macy’s realized potential, whose compositional mastery and visually-poetic brushwork rivals that of the finest Impressionist paintings of the era. Another painting, January in Bermuda, is confirmed to have existed, but currently its whereabouts are unknown. Appletons’ Cyclopedia of American Biography (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1899), a six-volume compendium of the biographies of notable people involved in the history of the New World, referred to January in Bermuda as one of Macy’s “chief works.” Since the painting has not been viewed for a considerable period of time, and no images, digitized or otherwise, are in evidence, speculation exists that January in Bermuda and Bermuda may indeed be the same picture. One can say with certitude, however, that Macy’s visit to the island was the forerunner to an incoming flow of well-known American artists of the period, such as Ross Sterling Turner, Prosper Senat, and Winslow Homer. 

Besides January in Bermuda, four other paintings by Macy were listed in Appletons’ Cyclopedia as being among his “chief works”: Edge of the Forest (1881); Old Forest in Winter; Winter Sunset (1884); and Old Mill (1885). Additionally, several other paintings bear mention, including A View of the Bavarian Alps (1878), whose mounted horsemen and distant, snow-capped mountains unfold in a three-dimensional sweep; Pecheurs Sur Les Rochers, an impressionistic seascape featuring a a rocky promontory abutting a dappled body of water; A Country Village Beside a Stream (1878), one of Macy’s uncannily realistic evocations of a specific moment in time, transporting the viewer directly into the center of a wooded German hamlet of this period; Fisherman at Lake’s Edge, a sporting scene in the tradition of the best purveyors of this genre; Autumn Landscape, a pastoral, burgundy-tinged work emitting an aura of extreme serenity; Nantucket Landscape, which details a country road of the period, so naturally conceived that the collapsed tree encroaching upon the path is nearly imperceptible at first glance (just as it might be to the unsuspecting traveler); and Wooded Winter Landscape, with its glowing, golden-hued sunrise emerging in the background beyond the still, leafless trees.

In 1890, reputedly for reasons of health, Macy moved to Santa Barbara, California, marrying a local woman, Anne Alexander, four years later. Except for a brief period spent in Orange, New Jersey, he spent the remainder of his days on the West Coast, where he is believed to have purchased a poultry farm. Despite a declining artistic output, he continued to produce landscapes, though most of his work of this period remains in the hands of private collectors and has yet to be seen at auction. One of his most significant achievements was realized in the mid-point of the decade of the 1890s, when, according to the National Cyclopedia of American Biography (New York: James T. White and Co., published annually from 1891-1984), Macy was awarded one of six ‘A’ Medals for Landscape for his oil Meadow Near Munich (1893) at what the Cyclopedia refers to only as “the Mechanics’ Fair”; educated speculation would suggest that the referenced venue was one of two major Mechanics’ Fairs that took place in 1895 in Boston and San Francisco (the latter venue being close to where Macy resided at the time), though one cannot confirm that with certitude. 

During the course of his career Macy’s work was displayed at some of America’s most selective annual art exhibitions, including the National Academy of Design (1875-1896); the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1879-1880, 1888); the Boston Art Club (1880-1896); the Art Institute of Chicago (1889-1927); and the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (biennial, 1937).  He held memberships in the Lotos Club (an exclusive New York City “gentleman’s club” with a primarily literary and artistic composition); the Society of American Artists (which was originally created as a counterpoint to the more conservative National Academy of Design, and where Macy occasionally exhibited); and the Artists’ Fund Society (whose purpose was to aid the destitute families of artists who had died in poverty). Today, his work is publicly exhibited at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, an adjunct of the Old Dartmouth Historical Society. 

William Starbuck Macy died in Santa Barbara, California, in 1945. Though his work has yet to be accorded the status as that of his better-known contemporaries, Macy’s multi-faceted approach, exemplified by his seamless transition between, and thorough command of, numerous artistic styles, has yielded an ongoing rediscovery of his work and a reexamination of its value at auction. Perhaps it can be argued, as was implied in the aforementioned 1880 article in the Art Journal, that his lack of flashy showmanship may have hindered his cause, but this should not negate the array of skills he seemingly so effortlessly unveiled, including his mastery of depth, which endowed many of his landscapes with a three-dimensional perspective, and his attention to period detail, which allowed him to recreate many scenes in such a way as to enable the viewer to step directly into the picture-plane, to become a part of the setting, an interactive experience rarely conferred by the medium of painting. Though Macy’s palette was never arbitrarily or “expressively” employed, it nevertheless included several striking shades of blue that permeated his ever-changing skies. Moreover, any equitable evaluation of Macy’s oeuvre should account for a central thematic undercurrent evidenced in such paintings as Pastoral Road with Figure and House in Distance, Returning Home, Man Walking in Woods, and Winter Scene, East Hampton: that of the individual’s relationship to nature, and his place in a world that was rapidly changing, such that the loss of a communitarian spirit, so engrained in the colonial period of Macy’s ancestors - which despite its coercive behavioral strictures, maintained a tight-knit, mutually supportive ethos - had given rise to a kind of solitary melancholia, symbolized in these landscapes by a faceless, darkened individual (or two) treading a lonely, directionless path on a narrow, snow-laden road. Though these figures often occupy the center of the canvas, they remain amorphous, dislocated beings. These paintings, which precede in time the Social Realist School of the early twentieth century, do not imply a political and economic reason for the individual’s malaise (as the Social Realists did), but instead offer a vision of an existential void that in part was the harbinger of the turmoil soon to explode upon the world of the twentieth century; notwithstanding his virtuosity with a brush, Macy, in his bold yet understated embodiment of this perspective, stands as an important, prophetic voice in the art historical canon.  

Written January 2017 by Brian Flon, author of "Hell's Kitchen Requiem" (2014), available as an e-book at Amazon, ITunes, and Barnes & Noble.

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