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Stanton Macdonald-Wright Photo

Stanton Macdonald-Wright

American Abstract Painter

Born: July 8, 1890 - Charlottesville, Virginia, United States
Died: August 22, 1973 - Los Angeles, California, United States
Movements and Styles:
Modernism and Modern Art
"I strive to divest my art of all anecdote and illustration and to purify it to the point where the emotions of the spectator will be wholly aesthetic, as when listening to good music"
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Stanton Macdonald-Wright Signature
"I cast aside as nugatory all natural representation in my art. However, I still adhered to the fundamental laws of composition (placements and displacements of mass, as in the human body in movement) and created my pictures by means of color-form, which, by its organization in three dimensions, resulted in rhythm."
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Stanton Macdonald-Wright Signature
"I strive to make my art bear the same relation to painting that polyphony bears to music. Illustrative music is a thing of the past: it has become abstract and purely aesthetic, dependent for its effect upon rhythm and form."
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Stanton Macdonald-Wright Signature
"I think it's very dangerous for a Western mind to monkey with Oriental ideas. I don't think it should be monkeyed-with at all."
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Stanton Macdonald-Wright Signature
"When I'm painting a picture I'm not thinking about anybody loving it, my loving it, or anything else. As a matter of fact, I, like probably every painter in the world, when I'm painting a picture think of practically everything in the world except the picture. I reconstruct whole pasts for myself. I think of what's going on here. I think of whether I want this or that for dinner. I think of what somebody said to me some other time, that has nothing to do with the picture. One paints pictures, if one is an artist, subconsciously."
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Summary of Stanton Macdonald-Wright

Best known as a co-founder of Synchromism, Stanton Macdonald-Wright was a pioneer, both as one of the first American avant-garde painters to receive international attention and for his role in introducing modern art to Los Angeles in the 1920s. He worked in both abstract and figurative styles, although both were guided by his belief in the harmonious and spiritual power of color, as well as his study of Asian art and belief systems.


  • As one of the founders of Synchromism (with Morgan Russell), Stanton Macdonald-Wright developed the first American modernist style of painting. His radical embrace of abstraction and reliance on color and form to create movement and meaning, places him among the pioneers of non-objective painting. Although he would eventually return to figuration, his Synchromist works were among the first completely abstract paintings of the 20th century.
  • Using color to express musical qualities, Macdonald-Wright experimented with the notion of synesthesia, a popular artistic and scientific concept at the time that also featured in the work of French Symbolists, the Orphists like Robert Delaunay, and the German Expressionist Wassily Kandinsky. Creating connections between color, music, and spirituality, Macdonald-Wright was integral in developing abstraction in Paris during the 1910s, and in transmitting these experimental ideas to his colleagues in America.
  • Macdonald-Wright organized the first exhibition of modern art in Los Angeles and was instrumental in fostering a community of modern artists on the West Coast. His teaching and writings on color theory were important models for young California artists, providing an alternative to New York as a cultural center. His work with the Works Progress Administration in California during the 1930s also provided training and opportunities for many.
  • With new interest in his career after World War II and the development of his Neo-Synchromist style, Macdonald-Wright was a critical advocate for the relevance of early American modernist painting during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism. He was an important reminder that Modern Art had a history in America, particularly in the study of color theory.

Biography of Stanton Macdonald-Wright

Stanton Macdonald-Wright Photo

Born to Archibald Davenport Wright and Annie van Vranken, Stanton MacDonald-Wright was named after women's rights activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, whom his mother greatly admired. The family lived comfortably in Santa Monica, where his father ran a beachfront hotel. Archibald Wright was also an amateur artist, who encouraged Stanton's artistic talents, enrolling him in private art lessons as a young boy. His older brother, Willard Huntington Wright was an art writer and critic, who later wrote the very popular Philo Vance detective novels under the pseudonym S.S. Van Dine.

Important Art by Stanton Macdonald-Wright

Progression of Art

Synchromy #3

This painting, an early example of the Synchromist style, utilizes color in an abstracted manner, allowing it to serve as both the subject and theme while building a three-dimensional rhythm across the two-dimensional surface of the canvas. Macdonald-Wright described this color effect as creating "bumps and hollows," bringing the flat surface of the painting closer to a sculpture.

Here, the composition creates balance within a field of dynamic movement through the deliberate and careful juxtapositions of brilliant and repeated hues. At the same time, these patches of color create a sense of classical harmony which is reinforced by the dimensions of the square canvas. The color spirals out from a central vortex, creating a sense of outward movement similar to that of an expanding universe.

The relationship of color with music was a central idea of Synchromy. Macdonald-Wright assigned each color of a twelve-color scale to a note on the musical scale. He then composed harmonious "color chords," and gave them a sense of rhythm through the juxtaposition of the various colors and the interplay of light and shadow. The result was a painting that was not just a static image, but a dynamic interplay of color that took time to see, not unlike the performance of a piece of music. These interdisciplinary theories provide an additional layer of universalizing meaning and significance to paintings such as this, elevating them from decorative arrangements to explanations (or at least, explorations) of larger cosmic systems.

Oil on canvas


Au Café (Synchromy)

This work, which at first appears quite similar to Macdonald-Wright's earlier, purely abstract synchromies, represents his shift towards figurative images. Within the shimmering facets of color, the viewer can pick out elements to reconstruct a pair of figures: a seated man at the lower right faces a woman wearing a hat, who is raising a wine glass to her lips. After an early period of abstraction, the majority of Macdonald-Wright's mature paintings would include some level of figuration, coupled with his color theory to create suggestive atmospheres and layered meaning.

Beyond the use of color to abstract and enliven these figures, the jewel-like tones are carefully arranged to evoke feelings of happiness and liveliness. Unlike more monochromatic and static Cubist depictions of café subjects, here the viewer can easily imagine a lively café setting, filled with upbeat music and bustling crowds. The mirrored use of deep reds, juxtaposed with cool blues and greens in each figure suggests a relationship that is passionate, but also comfortable, relaxed, and familiar.

Oil on canvas - Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas


Oriental Synchromy in Blue-Green

Geometric planes of color (predominantly blues and greens, accented with orange and yellow) fill the canvas, creating an initial impression of an abstract composition. Yet, within the arrangement of these planes appear four human figures, obscured to the point that it is difficult to identify precisely where one figure begins and another ends. Nevertheless, the viewer is able to discern what art historian Ann Lee Morgan refers to as "fragmentary figural elements," including a face, a bent elbow, a thigh, and a raised arm. This creates a human element within the pulsating color fields.

In this particular image, sharp contrasts of light and shadow create stronger outlines toward the center of the work, diffusing toward the edges. This hazy effect not only enhances the artist's intended evocation of "space and depth," but also enhances the painting's subject - Macdonald-Wright wrote that it was "based - in its forms & arrangement & subject matter - on an opium smoking group." The graceful composition of the image reflects the euphoric, relaxed, dream-like state experienced by the opium smokers. As both Macdonald-Wright and his brother were addicted to opium during the 1910s, this would have been a personally familiar scene; shortly after this painting, however, Macdonald-Wright quit the habit, although his brother Willard never would.

Oil on canvas - Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City


Synchromy in Purple

Fearing that purely abstract works could devolve into "aimless free decoration," Macdonald-Wright eventually incorporated objects into Synchromism in works such as this. This evolution also allowed Macdonald-Wright to more directly connect his painting to the Old Masters, creating an artistic pedigree for the movement. The most significant figural inspiration for both Macdonald-Wright and Russell came from the work of Michelangelo, and both artists sought to reimagine similarly powerful, muscular male figures in their works. Macdonald-Wright said about Michelangelo in a 1964 interview that "To me he was one of the greatest draftsmen who ever lived. And of course, to me, sculpture ended with him. There has been no great sculpture since Michelangelo."

The subject here is Michelangelo's Adam from the Sistine Chapel; we can see the splayed form of a reclining male nude emerging from the vibrant planes of color. In this arrangement, the figure is rendered in a fragmented manner, using color rather than outlines to define the form. Still, the viewer can recognize the torso, genitals, and legs of a crouching male figure, as well as the bottom half of his chiseled face. Macdonald-Wright casts his version in a color scale based on red-violet, adding in chords of yellow-orange and green. In his book, Treatise on Color, he claimed that this red-violet palette was about potential energy, which speaks to the narrative moment in Michelangelo's fresco. With Macdonald-Wright's emphasis on the figure's genitalia, however, he implies that his man is not just an awakening conscience, but also includes a sexual awakening.

We can see a second shift taking place within Synchromist theory in this painting, as Macdonald-Wright abandoned tertiary colors, focusing instead on using primary and secondary colors, and arranging them harmoniously to prismatic effect. Unlike much of his earlier work which relied on juxtaposing large planes of colors, here his carefully-placed sweeping strokes of color create an interplay of light and shadow that comes to delicately define the contours of the male form.

Oil on canvas - Los Angeles Museum of Art


History of Santa Monica and the Bay District

In this mural, Macdonald-Wright used the Synchromist principle of harmonious colorsto enliven a more traditionally rendered figurative image. Like many murals completed through the WPA, he chose a more realistic style that would please the public using this space - the city hall of Santa Monica. The image represents the history of both the city and the State of California, depicting two kneeling Native Americans, two Spanish conquistadors and a Franciscan priest. Inspired by an episode from the diary of Father Juan Crespi, a member of the 1769 Portola expedition to modern-day California, it recounts a meeting between the expedition members and Native Americans on the feast day of Saint Monica (August 27). Father Crespi commented that the droplets of the spring reminded him of the tears of Saint Monica. The story goes that the Native Americans escorted the Spanish to the freshwater spring in a gesture of warmth, welcoming, and kindness.

The mural was created using a technique that Stanton and Macdonald-Wright invented and called "Petrachrome." He later explained that while petri - chrome translates to colored stone, "it's made of concrete. It's made of a white concrete, which is then colored by oxides or colors or one thing or another, and by different kinds of ground-up colored stones all mixed together." This created a modern version of fresco painting, an ancient mural technique that was also regaining popularity as part of the 1930s mural movement.

The ambiguous pose of Native American figures has prompted 21st-century debate. While they might be bending to drink water from the stream that flows through the image, they appear to be bowing in a gesture of deference, submission, or perhaps even reverence to the colonizers. In recent years, several (unsuccessful) protests and petitions have called for the work's removal. For instance, Oscar de la Torre, founder of the Pico Youth and Family Center, calls the work "the Santa Monica Confederate flag" and "an image of Native American people bowing down to the Spaniards who came and oppressed and murdered and committed genocide in the Americas." Defenders of the mural have disagreed with this interpretation, some pointing to the artistic merit and historical importance of the work to bolster their argument. Santa Monica is not alone in grappling with the politics of these WPA murals; other communities are struggling to reconcile problematic images of American history in public spaces. Carol Lemlein, president of the Santa Monica Conservancy has stated "I think that many of us recognize that our public art collection does not necessarily reflect the diversity of the community at this point in time. But that is not a reason to tear [the mural] down but to encourage other representations of art to be established."

Crushed tile, marble and granite - Santa Monica City Hall


An Old Pond, a Frog Leaps in the Sound of Water

This later work by Macdonald-Wright comes from "Haiga," a series of twenty woodblock prints meant to accompany famous Japanese haikus. The image demonstrates his intention of synthesizing Asian culture and traditional techniques with the principles of Synchromy. Macdonald-Wright became familiar with Japanese art, poetry, and culture while visiting Japan in 1952-1953, and deepened this knowledge with his annual residencies at the Kenninji monastery in Kyoto beginning in 1958.

The haiku presented in this image is by the 17th-century poet Bashō. Without literally depicting the frog, the boldly colored series of swirling ovoid and spiral planes indicate his plunge into water, and, more importantly, evoke its sound. In this way, the viewer's visual experience is linked to an auditory memory, encouraging a more vivid and engaging response to both the poem and the print. Just as the poem prompts a mental image through minimal description, the blocks of color suggest dynamic movement through simple shapes.

Woodcut - Los Angeles Museum of Art

Influences and Connections

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Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Stanton Macdonald-Wright Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 30 Nov 2019. Updated and modified regularly
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