Roy Vincent MacNicol (1889-1970), “Paintbrush Ambassador of Goodwill”, had an extraordinary artistic career, even if his personal life was sometimes confrontational.
The American painter, designer, writer and lecturer had close ties to Chapala for many years: in 1954, he bought and remodeled the house in Chapala that had been rented in 1923 by English author D. H. Lawrence, and then by artists Everett Gee Jackson and Lowell Houser.
After MacNicol and his fourth wife Mary Blanche Starr bought the house, they divided their time between Chapala and New York, with occasional trips elsewhere, including Europe. Their New York home, from 1956 (possibly earlier) was at 100 Sullivan Street.
- Mary Starr MacNicol and her flower cookery book inspired by Chapala
- Quinta Quetzalcoatl, the D. H. Lawrence house at Lake Chapala
Roy MacNicol was a prolific painter and several MacNicol paintings of Lake Chapala are known. He lived an especially colorful life, married at least four times, and was the focus of various scandals and lawsuits.
Born in New York City on 27 November 1889, “the son of a British major and a Spanish lady who had been born in Sweden”, MacNicol died in that city in November 1970. He studied at the University of Illinois and was a member of the Baltimore Watercolor Society, the Lotus Club and the Pan-Am Union.
In about 1915 he married Mildred ____, five years younger than himself. They named their son, born in about 1916, Roy. At the time of the 1920 U.S. Census, Roy Sr., Mildred and Roy Jr. (then aged 4 years, 6 months) were all living in New York.
In 1919, he appeared at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C., in the farce Twin Beds, and in the farce Where’s Your Wife? on Broadway at the Punch and Judy Theatre.
MacNicol is best known for his watercolors and elaborate decorative screens, but also painted murals, including some for the Moore-McCormack Steamship Line.
In his early 30s, MacNicol was outraged when a fellow artist, Robert W. Chanler, called him a “copyist” and claimed that MacNicol had stolen his designs. MacNicol took Chanler to court, asking $50,000 for the alleged libel. (New York Times, 26 May 1925)
MacNicol’s solo exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago in April 1926, entitled “Recent Works of Roy MacNicol” based on a “recent trip to France and Spain”, included many abstract paintings of fauna such as cranes, herons, Australian squirrels and penguins. In the program notes A. G. Warshawsky praised the abstract compositions that “still hold a human and essentially humorous effect, which adds both to the charm and naiveté of the subject”.
At some point prior to this, Roy MacNicol married vaudeville performer Fay Courtney (born in Texas on 10 May 1890); the couple returned from Europe together in 1926 and were certainly still together in 1934 when they traveled back to their home in Palm Beach Florida from Kobe, Japan, via Vancouver and Seattle.
MacNicol’s links to Mexico date to around the time Fay Courtney MacNicol passed away in February 1941. In 1943, MacNicol held a solo exhibition at the Pan American Union in Washington, D.C. that was visited, and much enjoyed, by Eleanor Roosevelt:
“On leaving the club, I went to the Pan American Building to see an exhibition of paintings done in Mexico by Mr. Roy MacNicol. They were perfectly charming, and I was particularly interested in the Indian types. Some showed the hardships of the life they and their forefathers had lived. Others had a gentleness and sweetness which seemed to draw you to them through the canvas. The color in every picture was fascinating and I feel sure that this is the predominant note in Mexico which attracts everyone in this country who goes there.” (Eleanor Roosevelt, 5 March 1943)
MacNicol is credited with creating the first “Good Neighbor” Exhibition, which had a Mexican theme, in the interest of international good will. Mrs. Roosevelt sponsored later “Good Neighbor” exhibits, as did several prominent Mexican officials including Mexican president Miguel Alemán.
MacNicol traveled frequently to Mexico and Cuba throughout the 1940s and 1950s and his work was widely exhibited, both across the U.S., and internationally in Cuba, China and Europe. His solo shows were held at such widely respected institutions as the National Academy of Design; the Art Institute of Chicago (1926); Lyceum, Havana, Cuba; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City. Examples of his artwork are in the permanent collections of the University of Illinois; Randolph-Macon Woman’s College; University of Havana, Cuba and the Reporter’s Club, Havana.
MacNicol lectured on art and Spain and his formal jobs included a spell as associate editor at the American Historical Company in New York City. He was a regular contributor to several newspapers including the Christian Science Monitor; Atlanta Journal Times Herald; Mexico City News and The Havana Post, and also authored two books: Paintbrush Ambassador (1957) and, according to most sources, a book about El Greco, The Flame of Genius (date and publisher unknown).
The autobiographical Paintbrush Ambassador makes repeated reference to notable personalities including the likes of Ernest Hemingway, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jack Warner, Danny Kaye, Gloria Swanson and Mr. and Mrs. Nelson D. Rockefeller.
On 9 September 1945, MacNicol married Mrs. Helen Stevick, “wealthy publisher of the Champaign, Illinois, News Gazette” in Chicago. The newly-married couple went to Mexico City for their honeymoon, where Stevick’s daughter joined them. The marriage quickly became a complete disaster, though it provided ample fodder for the newspapers of the time who had a field day describing the plight (and possible motives) of the prominent painter. The Steviks accused MacNicol of fraud and had him (briefly) imprisoned in a Mexican jail. MacNicol sought revenge on the daughter, seeking $500,000 for her part in wrecking his marriage.
Irving Johnson, for the San Antonio Light, wrote that:
“Roy V. MacNicol is a painter of Mexican scenes. The critics praise his work. Prominent Americans and the Mexican cabinet have sponsored his exhibitions. He has been called America’s paintbrush ambassador.
Now he’s laid down his brush temporarily to picture another kind of Mexican scene – his own unhappy honeymoon south of the border. His price is a half million – the amount of his recent alienation of affections suit against his own stepdaughter…”
MacNicol may have wanted $500,000, but he certainly did not get it; the case was dismissed on technical grounds. According to the divorce case the following May (1946), Mrs. MacNicol agreed with her daughter that he had married her only to get “large sums of money for his personal aggrandizement and the satisfaction of his idea of grandeur.” Ironically, that very month, Roy MacNicol held a successful show of Mexican watercolors in Chicago.
MacNicol did not take long to recover from his amorous setback. He spent the winter of 1946-47 enjoying “the season” in Palm Beach for the first time in several years, and in March 1947, married Mrs Bassett W. Mitchell (the former Mary Blanche Starr), widow of a real estate investor, and a long-time member of the Palm Beach colony. This marriage would prove more successful and lasted the remainder of his life.
In 1949, presumably in an effort to clear up her former husband’s estate, Mary Starr MacNicol requested Federal Court help with making the arrangements to pay outstanding debts.
In the early 1950s, the MacNicols lived for some time in Mexico City, prior to moving to Chapala in 1954 and buying the home formerly rented by D. H. Lawrence at Zaragoza #307. MacNicol restored the house and added a swimming pool. He also added a memorial plaque on the street wall to Lawrence: “In this house D. H. Lawrence lived and wrote ‘The Plumed Serpent’ in the year 1923.” According to a later exhibition catalog, the wall plaque also referred to another of MacNicol’s boyhood heroes, Robert Louis Stevenson. [?]
A “list of foreign residents in Chapala” from June 1955, and now in the archive of the Lake Chapala Society (LCS), includes Roy and Mary MacNicol among the 50 total foreign residents in the town at that time, though they were not LCS members.
The MacNicols spent part of 1956 in Europe, and are shown as leaving Mexico by air for New York in late September prior to returning to Palm Beach from Southampton, U.K., aboard the Queen Mary in November.
It is unclear precisely when the MacNicols sold their house in Chapala, but according to columnist Kenneth McCaleb, MacNicol was disposing of the contents of his Chapala home in the early 1960s, prior to selling it and going to New York. (The Corpus Christi Caller-Times, Texas, 15 February 1968)
The exhibition catalog dating from late 1968 or early 1969 for MacNicol’s last one-man show “Faces and Places of Nations” was the artist’s 59th solo exhibit. The catalog describes the artist, the “Paintbrush Ambassador of Goodwill”:
“He believes in the universal diplomacy of art as a means to world understanding. His “Faces and Places of Nations” series was begun in 1943. The exhibit has been shown in Mexico City, Spain, Paris, Stockholm, Copenhagen, British West Indies, Cuba, South America, as well as in key cities in U.S.A. The 1949 exhibition was televised coast-to-coast by NBC.”
Of the sixteen works listed in the catalog, six are from Mexico, including two directly linked to Lake Chapala:
- Old Fisherman & Boy (Lake Chapala);
- Mary & Duke Casa MacNicol (Lake Chapala)
Despite enjoying considerable success (and some notoriety) during his lifetime, Roy MacNicol is one of the many larger-than-life artists to have lived and worked at Lake Chapala whose contributions to the local art community have, sadly, been largely forgotten.
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