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Emma Fordyce McRae

Emma Fordyce McRae: expert painter of confident women

An example of Emma Fordyce MacRae’s astute use of color is ‘Melina in Green,’ a 1931 canvas that sold for $50,000 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2022. Image courtesy of Freeman’s and LiveAuctioneers.
An example of Emma Fordyce MacRae’s astute use of color is ‘Melina in Green,’ a 1931 canvas that sold for $50,000 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2022. Image courtesy of Freeman’s and LiveAuctioneers.

NEW YORK — Born in Vienna, Emma Fordyce MacRae (1887-1974) grew up in New York City and was a member of the group of women artists known as the Philadelphia Ten, but is perhaps most closely associated with the Rockport School and the Cape Ann School of Massachusetts.

Her work was routinely exhibited in her lifetime and she received many awards, so the fact that she has largely been forgotten today is mystifying. MacRae was rediscovered in the 1980s, had a major gallery show in New York in 1983, and was part of a larger exhibition on American women artists in 1987, but not much attention has been paid to her since then. Her work does bring strong prices on the auction market, although offerings are generally few and far between.

The charming coastal and harbor views in Cape Ann in towns such as Rockport and Gloucester have been a magnet for artists since American painter Fitz Henry Lane touted the area’s importance in the 19th century. Unlike most of her fellow artists, MacRae had summered in this region of Massachusetts long before she painted it. Her well-to-do family bought a summer home in Rockport in 1916, which she inherited after her father’s passing in 1925. The family home had a name — Atlantic Highlands — and was sited on the western end of Gloucester, where she maintained a separate studio.

Emma Fordyce MacRae’s 1929 portrait, ‘Stelka,’ achieved $55,000 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2022. Image courtesy of Freeman’s and LiveAuctioneers.
Emma Fordyce MacRae’s 1929 portrait, ‘Stelka,’ achieved $55,000 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2022. Image courtesy of Freeman’s and LiveAuctioneers.

She painted landscapes and still lifes, as most artists did in her era, but she is best known for her paintings of self-assured young women posing confidently, often with a jaunty hand on a hip. Among her award-winning paintings was her 1929 portrait Stelka, which received a National Arts Club gold medal in 1930. This painting earned $55,000 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2022 at Freeman’s. The motif of women posing in lavish, carefully appointed interiors has a rich tradition in art history and was common among 20th-century academic painters such as MacRae’s friend Ivan Olinsky, but he favored a more traditional style than she did.

“MacRae’s paintings differ, however, in their style from either his work or those artists of the Boston School in that hers ‘suggest a simplification of form not unlike that practiced by many a modern sculptor’,” according to a catalog on the artist by the Cape Ann Museum, which also states, “Emma Fordyce MacRae executed works that were noted for the complexity of their compositions, color, and careful technique, each dependent upon the other. She managed to integrate elements of the past and the present, the modern and the traditional, and yet at the same time she instilled her oils with an aura of agelessness. This complexity is uniquely her own and indeed makes it worth taking the time to linger over her paintings.”

An Emma Fordyce MacRae portrait of a confident sitter, ‘5 O’Clock - Girl with Butterfly Tea Set,’ brought $14,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2016. Image courtesy of Rockport Art Association and LiveAuctioneers.
An Emma Fordyce MacRae portrait of a confident sitter, ‘5 O’Clock – Girl with Butterfly Tea Set,’ brought $14,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2016. Image courtesy of Rockport Art Association and LiveAuctioneers.

Besides showing self-assured sitters, works such as 5 O’Clock – Girl with Butterfly Tea Set also reflect MacRae’s mastery of balance and color. In this painting, she demonstrates her understanding of Asian-inspired techniques such as notan, which derives its name from a Japanese word that means “light-dark harmony” and addresses ways to balance light and dark areas in a composition. The painting, which evinces that balance, brought $14,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2016 at Rockport Art Association. This painting is also noteworthy for how color unifies the composition — the hue of the bright orange dress is echoed in the deeper red-orange elements in the wallpaper.

Also showing Asian inspiration is a portrait titled Melina in Green, a 1931 oil on canvas that sold for $50,000 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2022 at Freeman’s. The color in this painting ties the composition together, with the vibrant emerald green in Melina’s dress matched in the dress in the painting on the wall. MacRae was adept at balancing light and color and equally adept in her placement of objects in a composition. This painting is spare but expertly balanced between the sitter, the book she holds and the painting on the wall.

Emma Fordyce MacRae’s ‘Rockport Beach’ brought $12,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2017. Image courtesy of Rockport Art Association and LiveAuctioneers.
Emma Fordyce MacRae’s ‘Rockport Beach’ brought $12,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2017. Image courtesy of Rockport Art Association and LiveAuctioneers.

Unlike many Cape Ann artists, MacRae preferred locations that were off the beaten path. She often painted from beaches and overlooked vantage points along Ipswich Bay instead of Gloucester’s Banner Hill overlooking the harbor. Most of her coastal landscapes were populated by figures, boats and buildings. They also mostly faced inland rather than towards the ocean.

“Structure, as noted, played a primary role in MacRae’s landscapes. She reinforced the organization of her compositions by focusing on granite walls and the modest architecture which she reduced to basic geometric shapes,” states the Cape Ann Museum’s catalog. A fine example of what the catalog cites is a MacRae Rockport Beach painting (she created several with this title) that depicts a hemmed-in cove with figures frolicking in front of the town’s skyline. The soft color palette she employs serves to modulate the geometric look she gives to the storefronts and homes in the background. Rockport Beach brought $12,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2017 at Rockport Art Association.

One of Emma Fordyce MacRae’s favorite painting spots is seen in ‘New England in September,’ which realized $19,000 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2022. Image courtesy of Freeman’s and LiveAuctioneers.
One of Emma Fordyce MacRae’s favorite painting spots is seen in ‘New England in September,’ which realized $19,000 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2022. Image courtesy of Freeman’s and LiveAuctioneers.

Of course, MacRae had favorite sites to which she returned for artistic inspiration. Her painting of a tranquil cove titled New England in September earned $19,000 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2022 at Freeman’s. It is very similar to an August view of hers as noted by the Cape Ann Museum in its catalog in figure 13.

The “still” nature of MacRae’s paintings lends them a timeless serenity. They suit cutting-edge contemporary homes just as well as they suited those of the 20th century.