Bread Upon the Waters

Although Wilson Macaulay became an accomplished artist, mainly through talent and perseverance, he never overcame several disadvantages. For one thing, he lacked a mentor who could have coached him in the finer techniques of painting and also introduced him to other artists and potential customers. For another, Macaulay never attended art school and met other students who might have shared their professional connections with him after graduation. Alone in his art, Macaulay struggled over the years, and at forty-three was still poor.

Of course, the steep decline in art purchases that occurred during WW II hadn’t helped. Nor had the radical turn toward modernism with its handmaiden: abstraction. After the war, Macaulay’s traditional style landscapes seemed less desirable than ever, and galleries throughout Chicago refused to display them even on consignment. Without a place to show his work, Macaulay had little access to purchasers. If his wife hadn’t secured a job at a dry goods store over on north Halsted Street, life would have been even more difficult.

As it was, Macaulay and his wife had to manage without the “extras” like eating out, shopping downtown and owning a car. The best they could do was occasionally walk to Lake Michigan, take the streetcar to Riverview Amusement Park or ride the Higgins’ bus to the end of the line and spend Sunday afternoons in the country.

In September of 1947, the Macaulay’s moved into three rented rooms over on Sheffield Avenue. They knew the El ran behind the building and that they would hear the regular rumble of the trains, but the place was all they could afford.

Although the apartment was small, it was on the second floor, and had a room facing the street with a bay of three windows that gathered the light. With the light in mind, Macaulay chose the room for his studio even though the hall door opened directly into it. It came as no surprise that every night for the first week Macaulay lived there, he dreamed of an endless stream of people passing through his studio while he was trying to paint.

Even after the frequency of the dream declined, Macaulay still couldn’t paint. The fragile thread of his imagination was periodically severed by the noisy interruptions of the El. And when visions of landscapes finally formed in his mind, they refused to congeal.

Near the end of the month, while Macaulay was still adjusting to the noise, a flash of inspiration came to him when he looked up one afternoon and saw his wife seated next to an open window in his studio. Her face was bathed in sunlight, and her slippered feet were just beyond the waving edge of gently billowing curtains. At that moment he began the first of a series of portraits of her, always in the curtain-filtered light of the front windows…somewhat in the manner of Vermeer.

In Macaulay’s second painting of his wife, she sat at a small writing desk, dressed in a blue velvet robe. She had a faint smile, as if her mind had wandered into a joyful moment from the past. In the third painting, she was standing by the window in a white cotton dress, patterned with bright flowers. Through the thin curtains, she was watching the walk below, a trace of worry in her eyes, as if anxious for a loved one, who was overdue, to return home. Before completing this painting, Macaulay already had a fourth in mind. His wife, with her auburn hair loosely tied with a scarlet ribbon, would be standing in the same diffused light, admiring a white and gold porcelain tea pot in her hands.

These new paintings were a far cry from his usual landscapes: painted in the manner of van Ruysdael and Constable. Macaulay had enjoyed spending Sundays in the country with his wife, studying the scenery and making preliminary sketches. Open fields, emerald woodlands and majestic clouds had appealed to him. In short, landscapes had been his favorite subject for years, and he had a closet full of them.

Now, however, it was different. His wife had become his favorite subject. And all he wanted to do was paint portraits of her.

Two weeks before Christmas, Macaulay was in an especially cheerful mood. He had sold a painting from the closet and his wife had gone out to buy a new dress. Even better, he had finished the fourth portrait of her, and was convinced it was his best yet. His mood of elation did not diminish when he answered the door and saw Jerry, his newsboy, collecting for the week’s newspapers he had delivered.

Paying him and giving him a tip, Macaulay casually asked Jerry what he wanted for Christmas. To his surprise and secret delight, Jerry said, without a moment’s hesitation, he wanted a Macaulay painting.

The artist immediately promised him one. All Jerry had to do was stop by on Christmas Eve and pick it up.

After Jerry had gone, Macaulay began thinking about the picture he would paint for him. It couldn’t be large because blank canvases and oils were expensive. Also, it certainly couldn’t be a portrait of his wife. That was too personal. What then? A miniature landscape, of course!

In the late afternoon on Christmas Eve, Jerry knocked on the Macaulay’s door. Macaulay knew who it was before he opened it, and had a small framed landscape in his hand. Jerry automatically handed Macaulay his newspaper. Smiling broadly, Macaulay gave Jerry the painting…and wished him a Merry Christmas.

Jerry’s eyes filled with excitement as he stared at it, and for a moment he didn’t know how to respond. Then he thanked Macaulay several times in a nervous voice and, while continuing to stare at the painting in disbelief, wished him the Merriest Christmas ever. On his way down the stairs, Jerry made sure the painting was tucked inside one of his newspapers because it had started to snow.

Now it happened that one of Jerry’s customers around the corner from the Macaulay’s was Rowena Andersen, a professor of Art history at Northwestern. She saw the edge of the picture frame between the newspapers under Jerry’s arm when she opened the door and, naturally curious, asked what he was carrying. Jerry carefully unwrapped the painting and held it up for her to see. After studying it a moment, a look of surprise came to her face, and she told Jerry it was one of the finest miniature landscapes she had seen in a long time. Where did he get it? Who was the artist? Did he live in the neighborhood? Were there more?

Jerry quickly told her everything. And two months later, through Rowena’s enthusiastic urging, a well-publicized one-man show was held for Wilson Macaulay at the Unicorn Art Gallery on Michigan Avenue. The many art critics and visitors who came and viewed Macaulay’s work were unanimous in their praise of his paintings…and almost evenly divided, in their preference, between his realistic landscapes and the striking portraits of his wife.