Mary L. Macomber (1861-1916)

Mary L. Macomber (1861-1916)

Mary Macomber was a visionary painter who crafted her technique in pursuit of a true expression of her innermost soul.  She had a lively intelligence but was prone to debilitating bouts of depression throughout her life.  Her paintings were intensely spiritual. Over the years she appropriated an array of allegorical figures including Death, Hope, Love and Memory, personalized them, and used them to explore her own feelings of hope and loss, reconciliation and sorrow.

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The daughter of a jewelry maker, Mary Macomber was born in Fall River. She had a brother six years her senior whom she hated and feared and a beloved younger sister who died in 1878 at the age of twelve.  Around that time her father fell ill and became an invalid. Although he objected to her becoming an artist, she took matters into her own hands and learned to paint from still life artist Robert S. Dunning. (1829-1905) in Fall River. In 1884 she moved to Boston to enroll in the Museum School. To support herself she sold drawings of designs for pottery decoration and embroidery to Art Amateur, a New York-based magazine. [1]

Macomber suffered a nervous breakdown around the time of her father’s death in 1886.  She dropped out of school and moved in with her mother, who was living in the Waverley section of Belmont, Massachusetts.  There in the countryside, she recovered and began painting steadily. In 1890 she exhibited Memory at the National Academy of Design in New York, and by 1895 she was exhibiting religious and allegorical paintings in New York, Philadelphia and Boston.  She was well known in Boston, often singled out for special mention in reviews, and in 1898 the Museum of Fine Arts accepted her painting St. Catherine into their collection.

In 1901 Robert C. Vose (1873-1964) came out to Waverley to look at Macomber’s work.  He bought five paintings on the spot and became her dealer, advisor and supporter throughout the rest of her life.  He encouraged her to engage a studio in Boston and with the money she received from the sales, she

moved into the Harcourt Building.  Tragically, when it burned down in 1904 she lost everything, barely escaping alive by crawling down a smoky corridor to safety. Shaken and on the verge of another collapse, she withdrew to Fall River, writing a line to Vose: “I am thankful for my life but I fear it will be of little use now.” [2]

Macomber recovered, moved back to Boston and took a studio next to Frank Benson’s, on St. Botolph Street. In 1908, fulfilling a lifelong dream, she traveled to England, France and Holland and when she returned, she decided to move her studio to New York, where portrait commissions would be more lucrative.  In 1911, after another serious illness, she returned to Boston. Vose remained a steady supporter even during the final years of her life when she became increasingly erratic. In April of 1915 she exhibited eight large paintings at the Guild of Boston Artists.  These works were her most mystical and visionary to date, but in the end her fragile health caught up with her.  In December she came down with a cold that she could not shake and, in February of 1916, died of pneumonia.

Macomber’s “ideal pictures,” as she called them, were idiosyncratic, appealing to a small group of enthusiasts who appreciated them for their beauty and spirituality. After her death William Howe Downes paid tribute: “Behind [her paintings] were gracious and tender fancies, of human and universal application, ideas of life and nature suitable for pictorial expression, embodied in charming and lovely forms.” [3]   

[1] Mary L. Macomber to Robert C. Vose, November 12, 1904. Vose Galleries Archives.

[2] William Howe Downes, “Mary L. Macomber,” Boston Evening Transcript (February 5, 1916).

[3] Although she was well known in her own lifetime, little has been written about Macomber since her death.  See William Howe Downes, “New England Artists, Miss Macomber’s Paintings,” New England Magazine (Nov. 1903): 276-286; and Charles A Parker, “Mary L. Macomber,” International Studio 47, nos. 185-188 (July-Oct., 1912): 61-64.

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