Portrait of an Artist's Mental Descent

By John Kelly
Thursday, August 2, 2007

D r. D. Percy Hickling was accustomed to judging the sanity of his fellow man. As alienist for the city of Washington in the 1920s, he diagnosed madness, determining when someone's odd or frightening behavior might warrant admittance to the mental asylum.

Not that such a dire outcome was inevitable. Mental disease can be cured, Dr. Hickling used to say, if it is caught early enough. And anyone -- no, everyone-- who is neither happy nor successful should consult an alienist.

But what is success? And what is happiness?

Surely Harold L. Macdonald would be counted a success. Born in Wisconsin in 1861, Macdonald studied painting in Europe and by the 1890s had become one of Washington's leading portrait artists. His bold style put him in high demand in the drawing rooms, boardrooms and committee chambers of the capital. He executed commissions for the Department of the Treasury and the Supreme Court. He taught students, passing on the skills he had learned in the ateliers of Paris.

He had "a peculiar knack for entertaining and attracted men of brains and women of beauty," a friend remembered.

Surely Dr. Hickling knew these things as he prepared to evaluate Macdonald. For the artist, it seems, had fallen on hard times.

"Poor Macdonald," remembered journalist and arts patron Rudolphe de Zapp in a letter he wrote years after the events he described. "He was 'down and out' when I happened to see him one cold morning in Judiciary Square where he was sitting on a bench with a stub of a pencil in his hand and a bit of paper sketching the court house side elevation."

By 1921 or so, Macdonald had traded his studio for a flophouse, his oils for pencil, his canvas for scraps of rough paper. But still he made art. With a practiced eye, he sketched the bums who, like himself, called the nearby Gospel Mission home.

How had the acclaimed artist fallen so far?

Perhaps a clue could be found in Macdonald's left sleeve. It was folded up and pinned to his jacket. A decade before de Zapp spotted Macdonald on a park bench, the artist had fallen and broken his left arm. Doctors amputated the limb after gangrene set in.

It would be easy to think this caused Macdonald's descent -- it's what de Zapp believed -- but as far as I can tell, he was, like most people, right-handed. He continued to paint for several years after the accident.

Whatever the cause, the seeds of mental illness grew. "The popularity of artists is a fragile thing," de Zapp wrote in a Washington newspaper in 1921 in an effort to raise money for the destitute Macdonald. "Anyone who sells beauty will tell you that the market rises and falls over night, and there is no forecasting the change in stocks."

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