Jonathan Stickney “STYX” McDonald came to Will County with his parents and five sisters in 1837, the year canal construction commenced. He was born on April 17, 1829, in Liverpool, New York, an area which sent many pioneers to Will County in the early years of settlement. His father, Asa, was a farmer and well-known local musician. Jonathan worked on his father’s farm and was largely self-educated. At the age of 18, he secured a job teaching in a local district school. In 1849 he journied West in search of gold and was one of the few from the area who returned from California with success.
After abandoning the idea of a formal education at Oberlin College, he opened a small banking house in Lockport, which failed however, during the financial crisis of 1858-59. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Jonathan recruited a volunteer company from Lockport which became part of the One Hundredth Illinois Infantry. He received a serious head wound in the Battle of Stone River, which resulted in near deafness for the rest of his life. —
From 1865 to 1870, McDonald lived in Chicago and worked as cashier of the Michigan Southern Railroad. During this period he first began to paint for personal pleasure. Only ten oil paintings and a small selection of drawings and botanical sketches have been located. While the number of works is small, their range of subject matter is surprisingly wide, including landscapes, group and single portraits and a curious metaphysical diagram.
The two landscape views of Lockport included in this exhibition are important visual documents of the town and the Des Plaines River Valley, as well as excellent examples of 19th century American “folk art”. This term is used rather loosely here, since McDonald’s art betrays a sophisticated sense of perspective. Most likely he was familiar with some of the many drawing manuals popular at the tine throughout the country.
After 1870, McDonald returned to Lockport where he founded a regional newspaper-chain, opened the city’s first lending library and owned some of the area’s most desirable commercial property. In 1891, he turned the management of the newspapers over to his son, Leon, a prominent Will County resident who became Lockport’s mayor and Superintendent of the Illinois and Michigan Canal. He devoted the rest of his life to philosophical pursuits. From an early age, McDonald, whose parents were Universalist, scorned organized religion and showed interest in the various metaphysical movements of his day. His first published work, Vital Philosophy: A Survey of Substance and An Exposition of Natural Religion (1870), reflects the influence of Transcendentalism and Swedenborgian teachings. Later, through contact with Theosophy, McDonald’s metaphysical interests shifted to more arcane avenues, and he became a leading member in the Hermetic Brotherhood of Light, a secret fraternal organization based on the writings of the Neo-Platonist, Hermes Trismegistus. McDonald wrote three volumes entitled Hemetic Philosophy, published in 1890, ’91 and ’93 under the pseudonym of “Styx”. He corresponded with a wide circle of occultists from North America, Europe and Asia. McDonald died in 1916 at the age of 87, having outlived his wife and both of his children.