Remained with the Family: Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh’s Opera of the Seas

Published on August 2, 2023

Dark painting with bodies.
Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, The Opera of the Seas, um 1903/15

An outstanding item

As part of establishing its own Jugendstil (art nouveau) collection, the Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt acquired a small group of late-19th century English paintings as illustrating symbolistic trends in the art of that period. An outstanding item in this work group is Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh’s Opera of the Seas, that was purchased in 1969 from the London art dealer Walter Mela. Mela was considered a Jugendstil specialist at a time in which the achievements of this epoch—long scorned as kitsch—were gradually being appreciated.

The museum acquired a total of 83 objects from him, principally Arts and Crafts objects. Mela’s activities appear to be largely unresearched. He obviously came from a Frankfurt family that maintained two antique shops until late into the 1930s—until National Socialist persecution forced them to emigrate. There is no documentation of business links between the Mela family and the museum in the period before 1945. It has nevertheless been necessary to research the provenance of this work as well.

It is still not clear exactly when it was created, but probably between 1903 and 1915. A label on the painting’s reverse states that the owner is “Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh / 2 Cedar Studios / 45 Glebe Place Chelsea”. The Mackintoshes lived and worked at this address from 1915 to 1923. In autumn of 1915, the work was shown at the Arts & Crafts exhibition of the Royal Academy in London and obviously remained in the artist’s possession thereafter. The pendant to the painting has disappeared. Only a few of Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh’s paintings exist, for like her husband the architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh she considered herself to be principally an interior designer.

Venice Biennale

Possibly Opera of the Seas was exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1924. At the latest after the artist’s death in 1933, the painting became the possession of her brother Charles. Thereafter it is documented as being owned by a “Mrs. Dunderdale”. Enquiries have revealed that this is Charles Macdonald‘s adopted daughter. Before her death in 1968, Mrs. Dunderdale sold the painting—probably in 1966 or earlier—to the US citizen Mario Amaya; in 1966 Amaya published the work in his book Art Nouveau. Amaya was an art critic, publisher, and museum director, as well as a first-generation Jugendstil scholar. It was he who sold the painting to Mela. It appears that the work never left Great Britain between 1924 and 1969, and its provenance is thus considered to be above suspicion.

Udo Felbinger

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