Born at Point Anne, Ontario, his family came from the Island of Skye, off the west coast of Scotland. They arrived in Canada and settled in Bay of Quinte, near Belleville, Ontario. At a very early age Manly MacDonald showed a talent for drawing and later, after completing his regular schooling, he entered the Albright Art School, Buffalo, N.Y., where he studied under Ernest Fosbery (1910) and at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts School, Boston, Mass., under William Paxton and Philip Hale (1912-13). Returning to Canada, MacDonald enrolled at the Ontario College of Art, Toronto, where he took further study under J.W. Beatty (1914-16), and met his wife Miss Lambe who was also attending the college. He received a Royal Canadian Travelling Scholarship in 1918 and the same year was commissioned by The Canadian War Memorials to paint scenes of women working in the fields gathering food for the nation. It was also the year he was elected member of the Ontario Society of Artists and Associated Member of the Royal Canadian Academy and his work gained at least some of its popularity through the annual exhibitions of these societies. MacDonald had married in 1918 and in 1920 he took his wife to Europe on his travelling scholarship where they visited galleries in France, Spain and Italy. He had established a studio in Toronto but returned to the Bay of Quinte area near Belleville at different times of the year to catch the changing moods of the rural area. There he recorded scenes in winter and spring, summer and fall; the fishermen hauling in their catch on Lake Ontario or the farmer hauling logs by horse-drawn sled along a lonely rural road in winter. Valerie Conde (Windsor Daily Star) once described him as follows, “While Ontario landscapes are Manly MacDonald’s favorite subjects, he is versatile, and is expert also at figure studies and heads of children. He believes that all painting should be natural and unaffected, and his preferred method of working is to don high boots and hiking clothes and sketch in the open air … Best known, as an interpreter of old Ontario, MacDonald finds romance and beauty along the water-fronts of Lake Ontario, in sleepy little villages, and quiet landscapes in the long-settled parts of the province. He is not of the school which finds most inspiration in the rugged bleakness of the north country. Charm of color is one of his assets, combined with competent technique and ability to catch an essentially Canadian flavor.”
His work was chosen for showing at Wembley, England (1924,25). In 1936 Graham McInnes (Saturday Night) noted, “… the landscapes are pleasantly and solidly executed, and have behind them the weight of a thoroughly mastered technique which, though it gives a strength to his work, is never obtrusive”. His work was shown at the World’s Fair, N.Y., in 1939. The Montreal Gazette by 1940 occasionally featured a photo of his paintings while they were on exhibit at the gallery of Herman Silbermann on Notre Dame Street West. By 1942 his work was being shown by the Laing Fine Art Galleries, Toronto. Mayfair Magazine in 1951 related how MacDonald painted directly on to large canvases even in extremely cold weather, and reproduced one of his Lonsdale, Ontario, canvases. For twenty-five years he donated a painting to the University Women’s Club of Belleville and district for scholarship draw to help girls from that area attend university and, from this fund forty-four girls were assisted. In 1959 he was commissioned to paint a scene of the Toronto Skyline and waterfront, which was presented to Queen Elizabeth in Toronto during her 1959 visit to Canada. That same year Coutts Hallmark Cards chose his paintings for their “Painters of Canada Series” Christmas Cards. After a career which spanned sixty years of painting, MacDonald died at the age of eighty-one.
He was a founding member of the Ontario Institute of Painters (1958). He is represented in the following collections: National Gallery of Canada; Art Gallery of Ontario; Agnes Etherington Art Centers, Queen’s Univ., Kingston; London Art Museum, Ont.; Abitibi Power and Paper Coll., Tor.; Upper Canada Village near Morrisburg, Ont.; Willistead Art Gallery, Windsor, Ont. and many other collections public and private.