Macena Barton was born in Union City, Michigan. She graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1924 and held one-woman shows there as well as at Knoedler Galleries and Findley Galleries in Chicago. At the Institute, she was much influenced by the teaching of Leon Kroll, who in turn was influenced by Social Realism. He encouraged her to develop her own style and to use her imagination, advice that she took to heart. Inspired by Kroll and also challenged by critic C.J. Bulliet in a book before they had met personally, she was responding to his remark that no woman had ever painted a first-rate nude. Barton was a commited feminist, sure that women could perform equally as well as men in art and other areas.
She incorporated a variety of styles into her work including realism and abstraction, and artists on both sides of that fence tried to claim her. C.J. Bulliet, an art writer and subject of one of her portraits wrote: "The 'moderns' sense her as an individualist, an egoist, going her unique way, untrammeled by the 'schools'. The 'conservatives' recognize her technical equipment and note her contempt for the 'isms'. " (89)
Barton became known for her richly colored figural and portrait paintings, and she received numerous portrait commissions. She and Bulliet became lovers, although he was married, and appeared to flaunt their public relationship by appearing together at social events and by him continuously promoting her work above others.
In 1927, she earned the August Peabody Award at the University of Chicago, and from 1945 to 1956, earned first prizes at the Chicago Galleries Association. She was a Fellow of the International Institute of Arts and Letters, and a member of the Arts Club of Chicago and the Chicago Society of Artists.
Louise Dunn Yochim, "Role and Impact: The Chicago Society of Artists"
Elizabeth Kennedy, "Chicago Modern, 1893-1945"
A quote published early 1930's by Macena Barton, "Only a great ego can produce a great work, whether in art, literature or music; therefore no work of art can be greater than the one who produces it. In producing a painting the subject matter is not so important as the manner in which it is handled by the individual artist. The aim is to produce a great picture, whether it be a portrait, a still life, a landscape, or a work in any other genre. Form, if interpreted in terms of modeling, I consider very important; as without form one has only a flat design, a two-dimensional work. Color I use as a contribution to form and also for its own sake. I am intensely interested in color, having an orientalist's passion for it. One's work must necessarily be more or less an expression of the age in which he lives, also influenced somewhat by enviroment. I do not, however, consider my work peculiarly American nor peculiar to Chicago. Up to the present time I have never entered the field of abstration. What I may do along that line in the future I do not know. I admire abstration if well done and believe it has as important a place in art as has naturalism. My art is a personal expression. I paint exactly what I feel and am not influenced by the methods of other artists, even of those whom I admire most. I paint to please myself, to satisfy an inner urge that must find expression. One must live life in order to interpret it. To put interpretation upon canvas should be the chief aim of the painter."