Thomas MacDonald was born about 1785, migrated to New Brunswick in 1819 from Scotland and traveled the St. John River Valley making a living painting portraits, including Charlotte Bell in 1820, Samuel Leonard Tilley and Daniel Babbit about 1829, and a family register for the McAlpine family about 1850 (if not earlier). Since he was constantly moving to wherever commissions led him, he often appears in census records more than once, as a visitor or lodger, but always with the occupation of painter. When he died in 1862, age 77, his burial was recorded at St. Johns Church, Gagetown but his tombstone, if he had one is now gone and we are unable to determine the grave site.
MacDonald took his inspiration from his subjects; painting what he was paid to paint. His backdrops are consistent throughout his career with subtle differences in each work. If some element of his subject or setting inspired him, he clearly included it. Or alternately, perhaps the client demanded certain elements be evident. The floor stencil and details of Charlotte Bell’s dress and hair are highlights of that work. The blue vest and black head covering are unique details to Daniel Babbit’s portrait as is the dignified column and drapery, indications of his stature. The McAlpine Family Record, though unsigned, carries the typical header of MacDonald’s other known works with spiritual figures, the eye and a small church.
We are very pleased to note that our research on MacDonald has corrected an assumption made in the 1980s. At that time and in the days before wide access to the marvelous resources that are now available online, a previous researcher made a leap of faith that Thomas MacDonald was probably a member of the extensive MacDonald/McDonald families of Queens County and a native-born New Brunswicker. The census records of 1851 and 1861, however make it abundantly clear that he is Scottish in origin and arrived in New Brunswick in 1819. Tracking down a MacDonald in Scotland will be akin to finding a needle in haystack, but we look forward to the challenge of investigating the artist’s origins and possible work prior to his migration.
Thomas MacDonald is recognized as a leading pre-Confederation folk artist of national significance and his works are in museums throughout Canada. His execution is slightly wooden and props are imbalanced, but he capably captures the details and character of each of his subjects and in the days before photography, MacDonald’s work illustrates a people, time and place for which we have few other records. For inclusion in Art Under the Influence, the McAlpine Family record underwent conservation treatment by Claire Titus, conservator, and was matted and properly framed.
For more information about Thomas MacDonald or to see his works in person, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.