Wendell Macy (1845 - 1913)

Descended of Thomas Macy & Richard Swain, who were among Nantucket’s earliest English settlers, Wendell Macy was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts; the son of Josiah and Eliza Swain Macy. He married Rachel Parker, daughter of Elisha and Elizabeth Gardiner Parker of Nantucket. The couple lived in New Bedford during the late 60’s and early 70’s, where Macy worked for a firm that specialized in nautical instruments. Eventually he opened an art studio with L. B. Ellis Fine Art. It is likely his earliest works were portraits.

To date there has been no evidence of exactly where Wendell Macy may have studied his craft. He worked in “crayon,” (pastels) his preference was portraiture, and composed marine and coastal ‘scapes in oil on board. Eventually, the Macy’s took up a livelihood of summering on Nantucket, where Macy wasted no time in establishing a means of exhibition. In 1872, the Inquirer & Mirror offers the earliest record of Macy’s Nantucket work, exhibited “at Miss Mary P. Swain’s store.” In the following decades, Macy’s skill as an artist combined with his acute entrepreneurial aptitude enabled an immediate following among summer visitors.

His were portable paintings, generally done on wooden panels that were beveled at the edges, so as not to require framing. Macy was both prolific and pragmatic in portraying Nantucket’s landmarks, steam boats, seascapes, and quaint street scenes. Presented in his sophisticated 2nd floor Main Street salon, each would be the perfect souvenir for travelers, while being an historically relevant telling of the Island’s unique cultural fabric.

Nantucket’s autumn Agricultural Fairs offered Macy additional exhibition opportunity: sheep shearing, husbandry, fish drays and kelp harvesting activities colored charming genre scenes of a rapidly disappearing populace. Soon enough, the aspiring artist and business man had forged alliances as Vice President and President of the Atheneum, and as Trustee for the NHA.

But Wendell Macy was perhaps most admired for his tragic portrayals of maritime tragedy. During the last quarter of the 19th century, Nantucket’s South Shore was frequently amuck with ship wrecks. The spectacle of rescued cargo and crew became a popular attraction for all – especially so for the growing artists colony. Macy utilized dominant shadows, brooding skies, and a preference for great, crashing waves against dwarfed figures to articulate unfolding drama. These works eventually found their way to exhibition at the Smithsonian’s Corcoran Gallery of Art, in Washington DC, and to the permanent collections the likes of the New Bedford Whaling Museum and the Nantucket Historical Association.

Carolyn Walsh, ref: Michael A Jehle, Editor; “Picturing Nantucket” copyright, 2000; Nantucket Historical Association

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