James Edward Hervey MacDonald was born in 1873, immigrating with his family to Hamilton, Ontario, in 1887. By sixteen he was apprenticing with a Toronto lithography company. He also worked in commercial design for Grip Printing and Publishing Co. from around 1895 to 1903, at Carlton Studio in London from 1903 to 1907, and again at Grip Ltd. from 1907.
In 1912 he quit his employment and devoted himself to paint full-time, although he continued to work as a freelance designer until 1921. While an apprentice, MacDonald studied art under John Ireland and Arthur Heming at the Hamilton School of Art, and with G.A. Reid and William Cruikshank at the Central Ontario School of Art and Design.
Macdonald was a founding member of the Group of Seven. His paintings were produced from sketches made on trips to Georgian Bay, in Northern Ontario, Algoma from 1919 to 1922, and in the Rockies from 1924 to 1930.
MacDonald was also a poet and calligrapher.
From 1921 he taught at the Ontario College of Art, becoming Principal in 1929.
He was active in the Arts and Letters Club, Toronto, and was a member of the Ontario Society of Artists and the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts.
He died in 1932.