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Walter MacEwen was the son of a Scottish immigrant who prospered as a construction contractor in Chicago. Intended by the family to follow his father in business, MacEwen chose instead to become an artist. While still a teenager, in 1877 he left America for Munich, Germany, where he studied at the Royal Academy under Cincinnati artist Frank Duveneck. He remained in Munich until 1881 when he moved to Paris for further studies at the Académie Julian, where he received instruction from Fernand Cormon and Tony Robert-Fleury. In 1883, MacEwen first traveled to Holland, where, along with fellow American expatriates George Hitchcock and Gari Melchers, he co-established an art colony in the small town of Egmond aan Zee, about 20 miles northwest and west of Amsterdam perched on coastal sand dunes. In the seventeenth century this area had attracted artists including Jacob van Ruisdael. While Melchers remained in Egmond, and MacEwen and Melchers remained lifelong friends, MacEwen spent three years in Egmond and then moved his permanent residence to Paris, returning to Holland frequently to paint in Haarlem, Volendam, and Hattem, where he briefly maintained a studio. 

MacEwen’s style reflects the meticulous training he received in both Munich and Paris. From Munich he derived an affinity for figure paintings in interiors cast in dramatic chiaroscuro, and from Paris he learned to render the figure with strong, carefully delineated accuracy. A further influence, as suggested by art historian Michael Quick, was the work of contemporary German painters Max Liebermann and Fritz von Uhde as well as the seventeenth-century “little Dutch Masters,” e.g., Gerard Terborch and Pieter de Hooch. Although a preference for Dutch subjects united him with Melchers and Hitchcock as the most prominent American expatriate artists in Holland, MacEwen’s style differs dramatically from those of his counterparts, who favored more colorful, high-key, often impressionistic, painterly styles. His choice of subjects, too, sets him apart from his two contemporaries, in that he seems to have mostly adhered to figure painting, whereas both Melchers and Hitchcock made the landscape a significant component of their repertoires.

MacEwen exhibited everywhere and often, as he courted attention on an international stage. He became one of the most awarded and decorated American artists of his time. Paris remained his center of activity. He exhibited regularly at the Paris Salon from 1885 to 1899, garnering an award in 1886, and showed at the Paris International Expositions of 1889 and 1900, winning a medal each time. He won prizes at venues in other European cities as well, including Berlin (1891), Antwerp (1894), Munich (1897 and 1901), Vienna (1902), and Liège (1905). He was made a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor in 1896, and an officer in 1908. In 1909, he was named a Chevalier of the Order of St. Michael in Belgium. 

In addition to international recognition, MacEwen was also well received in the United States. He exhibited regularly at the Art Institute of Chicago, from 1890 to 1939; the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, from 1891 to 1925; the National Academy of Design, New York, from 1903 to 1919; and the Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, from 1896 to 1904. He also participated in the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, in 1893; the St. Louis (Missouri) Exposition, in 1904; and the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, San Francisco, in 1915. MacEwen won awards at least once at each of these venues. He also exhibited at the Boston Art Club, from 1903–07, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C., from 1907 to 1928. MacEwen was elected an associate of the National Academy of Design in 1903, and was a member of the prestigious Century Club, New York. He executed murals that decorate the hallway leading to the reading rooms in the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Constrained by arthritis, MacEwen stopped painting around 1920, and turned instead to etching. In 1940, he returned to New York for a visit, but war in Europe kept him here until his death in 1943. His work is held in museum collections throughout Europe and America, including the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia; the Telfair Museum of Art, Savannah, Georgia; the Musée de Luxembourg, Paris; and the Musée Liège, Belgium.

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