The Macbeth Gallery was established in 1892 by William Macbeth, a Scotch-Irish immigrant who had spent ten years with the print dealer Frederick Keppel before he opened his doors to the art-buying public at 237 Fifth Avenue in New York. Despite the prevailing interest in foreign art at that time, particularly in that of the Barbizon and Dutch schools, Macbeth was determined to dedicate his gallery to "the permanent exhibition and sale of American pictures, both in oil and water colors."
Although some of the gallery's earliest exhibitions were of work by European artists, the business soon became the only gallery in continuous operation to keep American art permanently on display. In the January 1917 issue of Art Notes, Macbeth recounts those early days remembering that "The opening of my gallery......was a rash venture under the existing conditions, and disaster was freely predicted." Nevertheless, he struggled through the financial crisis of 1893 and persisted with his devotion to American art; slowly the market for his pictures grew more amenable.
Macbeth moved to more spacious quarters at 450 Fifth Avenue in 1906 and two years later undertook what was to become the major event in the gallery's early history: the 1908 exhibition of "The Eight," featuring work by Arthur B. Davies, Willam J. Glackens, Robert Henri, Ernest Lawson, George Luks, Maurice Prendergast, Everett Shinn, and John Sloan. "The Eight" were an unlikely combination of social realists, visionaries and impressionists eager to challenge the dominating influence of the National Academy. The exhibition received an immense amount of publicity and instantly entered into art history as a successful assault on tradition.
Despite the splash that the exhibition made and its implications for the future of American art, nothing that the gallery did subsequently indicated that Macbeth intended to capitalize on its significance. It is true that Macbeth supported many artists later considered leaders in American art when the public would pay no attention to them because of their modernist tendencies; Arthur B. Davies, Paul Dougherty, Maurice Prendergast, Theodore Robinson, and F. Ballard Williams all held their first exhibitions at his gallery. Nevertheless, neither Macbeth nor the gallery's two successive proprietors, Robert G. McIntyre (William's nephew) and Robert Macbeth (William's son), who joined the gallery in 1903 and 1906 respectively, ever developed a true interest in modern art. The November 1930 issue of Art Notes summarizes their collective disdain for modernism, stating: "We believe that, by and large, modern art is amusing. We are heretical enough to believe that much of it was started for the amusement of its creators and that no one was more surprised than they when it was taken seriously by a certain audience to whom the bizarre and the unintelligible always makes an appeal." So while the Macbeths and McIntyre cetainly championed American artists and insisted they deserved as much recognition as the Europeans, their deepest and most abiding interest was undoubtedly the established artists of the 18th and 19th-centuries and those of the early 20th-century who continued in a more conservative style. Artists such as Emil Carlsen, Charles Harold Davis, Frederick C. Frieseke, Robert Henri, Winslow Homer, Chauncey F. Ryder, Abbot Handerson Thayer, J. Francis Murphy, A. H. Wyant were the gallery's bread and butter.
When William Macbeth died in 1917 Robert Macbeth took up the reins with the assistance of Robert G. McIntyre . Although they incorporated the business as William Macbeth, Inc., in 1918 the gallery continued to be known, as it always would be, simply as Macbeth Gallery. Macbeth and McIntyre continued to show work in the same vein as the elder Macbeth. They concentrated primarily on oil paintings at this time, having found by the 1920s that "oils are all that our gallery owners will buy," though they also exhibited an occasional group of watercolors and pastels in addition to bronzes and other sculpture by contemporary American artists such as Chester Beach and Janet Scudder.
Of the early American painters the Macbeths and McIntyre were particularly interested in colonial portraits and miniatures, especially those painted by prominent artists in the latter part of the eighteenth century such as John Singleton Copley, Gilbert Stuart, Thomas Sully and John Trumbull. In its early years the gallery also handled the work of a few prominent American etchers including Frank W. Benson, Emil Fuchs, Daniel Garber, Childe Hassam and Chauncey F. Ryder. The print department was generally discontinued, however, in the late 1930s although the gallery continued to show prints by contemporaries such as Stow Wengenroth.
In 1924 relative prosperity allowed the gallery to move uptown to 15 East Fifty-seventh Street. When the 1930s brought new financial hardship for the gallery Macbeth and McIntyre took a variety of approaches to boosting sales. In 1930 they decided to hold only group exhibitions throughout the season to the exclusion of one-man shows, and also held some special exhibitions of paintings priced at a hundred dollars each in the hope that they could tempt those "willing to take advantage of a rare chance to secure representative examples of good art at a most attractive price." A move to smaller quarters at 15 East Fifty-seventh Street in 1935 was made with the intention of concentrating their efforts on the work of fewer contemporary artists, while continuing to handle the work of the older Americans they had long supported.
When Macbeth died suddenly and unexpectedly in August 1940 following an operation for appendicitis, McIntyre continued to run the gallery with the assistance of Hazel Lewis. During the 1940s McIntyre and Lewis showed primarily contemporary art in a wide range of media including oil, watercolor, pastel, drawing and sculpture, while continuing, as always, to show the occasional group of 19th-century Americans. The great success of the gallery's later years was undeniably Andrew Wyeth whose first exhibition, held at Macbeth Gallery in 1937, resulted in the sale of all twenty-two paintings cataloged.
Although subsequent Wyeth exhibitions were also successful, McIntyre struggled financially throughout the 1940s and periodically considered liquidating the company. Although "vitally interested" in contemporary art by people such as Robert Brackman, Jay Connaway, Carl Gaertner, James Lechay, Herbert Meyer and Ogden M. Pleissner he found that, for the most part, it did not pay. McIntyre continued operations until 1953 when he decided that doing so for profit was not only a financial burden but also ran contrary to his desire to spend more time devoted to his first love, early American art. When the lease expired on 11 East Fifty-seventh Street in April 1953 McIntyre did not renew it. After closing the gallery's doors he sold art from his New York apartment and from his home in Dorset, Vermont. He officially dissolved William Macbeth, Inc., in 1957.
The history of the Macbeth Gallery is a long and distinguished one with each successive proprietor making a significant contribution to art in America. William Macbeth helped establish an audience and a market for American art when few were willing to give it serious consideration. Robert Macbeth continued to cement the gallery's reputation as one of the leading firms in New York and was instrumental in organizing the American Art Dealers Association. Robert G. McIntyre claimed in a letter to Lloyd Goodrich, dated 22 June 1945, that the thing of which he was most proud was "the share I have had in the formation of the collection of the Addison Gallery of American Art, at Andover, Massacusetts." McIntyre was widely respected in the art community as a dealer, as an adviser to curators, and as a scholar whose research and book on Martin Johnson Heade helped "rediscover" an important American artist. One of his most significant and lasting contributions to the history of art in America, however, was undoubtedly his gift of the gallery's historical records to the Archives of American Art.