The sister of better known artist Margaret MacDonald, she was born near at Tipton, near Wolverhampton, and moved to Glasgow with her family in 1890. Both sisters enrolled in painting classes at the Glasgow School of Art in 1891, where they met the architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh and artist Herbert MacNair. Frances went on to marry MacNair, and Margaret married Mackintosh. All four later became the loose collective of the Glasgow School known as "The Four".
In the mid-1890s the sisters left the School to set up an independent studio together. They collaborated on graphics, textile designs, book illustrations and metalwork, developing a distinctive style influenced by mysticism, symbolism and Celtic imagery. Frances also produced a wide variety of other artistic work, including embroidery, gesso panels and water colour paintings. Like her sister, she was influenced by the work of William Blake and Aubrey Beardsley and this is reflected in her use of elongated figures and linear elements. Around this time Frances and her sister Margaret became members of the Glasgow Girls, which comprised women artists and designers. The sisters exhibited in London, Liverpool and Venice.
In 1899 she married MacNair and joined him in Liverpool where he was teaching at the School of Architecture and Applied Art. The couple painted watercolours and designed interiors, exhibiting a Writing Room at the International Exhibition of Modern Art in Turin, and Frances began teaching. They also designed the interiors of their own home at 54 Oxford Street. In the early 1900s they also exhibited in Liverpool, London, Paris, Venice, Vienna and Dresden. The closure of the School in 1905, and the loss of the MacNair family wealth through business failure, led to a slow decline in their careers, and they returned to Glasgow in 1909. In the years that followed, Frances painted a series of symbolist watercolours addressing the choices facing women, such as marriage and motherhood. Frances and Herbert had a son, Sylvan, born in June 1900 and who later emigrated to Rhodesia.
Frances' achievements are less well known than those of her sister, due in part to her departure from Glasgow, but also because her husband destroyed many of her works after her death. Both sisters works were also frequently overshadowed by the achievements of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Frances died in Glasgow in 1921.
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- Robertson, Pamela, ed. Doves And Dreams: The Art of Frances Macdonald and James Herbert Mcnair. Lund Humphries Publishers, 2006. ISBN 0-85331-938-3