Judith and the Limner

28 Mar

I must be having a bad day. This painting has me … uh … without anything to say.

(c) Marysia Donaldson; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

David Abercrombie Donaldson, “Judith,” 1955, Oil on canvas, 30 x 61 cm, Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow, Scotland, UK

I mean … um … it has pretty shades of blue and green.  And lovely pale flowers to balance the misty white tents of the receding Assyrian camp.  And Judith looks very healthy and happy and … er … vacant.

I am also quite confused because, looking across Donaldson’s ouevre, this painting is a departure from his other work.  I mean, this artist painted a portrait of the Queen Elizabeth II in 1968 – which led to him becoming The Painter and Limner for Her Majesty in Scotland, for crying out loud!!  His duties included “drawing pictures of our [the Monarch’s] person or of our successors or others of our royal family for the decorment of our houses and palaces”.  And he painted Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s portrait in 1977, for heavens sake!!!  His style was very sophisticated, modern and refined.

But this depiction of Judith looks like something from a high school art show.  Although that is not how the critics describe it.

Judith, which was exhibited at the Edinburgh Festival in 1955, is a neat summation of the artist’s style… In his own rendition, Donaldson has glanced obliquely at the Renaissance and Baroque prototypes which clot the subject, only to return them to store and invest the theme with his own wry commentary. Gone is the jaunty self-possession of Botticelli’s homecoming Judith; gone is Artemisia Gentileschi’s gory pathology and multi-layered psychological complexity. The Scotsman’s Judith is a mildly anxious, ethereal creature, almost a refugee from a Victorian fairy painting. She floats away from the distant enemy encampment, lightly supporting the head of Holofernes on her shoulder. There is no attendant maidservant, only tangles of flowers. The saviour of her country has accomplished her task with the delicate efficiency of the sunrise which stains the horizon.(1)

Actually, Donaldson’s obituary gives some insight into this painting – and perhaps into a perspective on life.  “His allegorical paintings look back to his Scottish background with its deeply rooted knowledge of the Bible and the poems of Burns. Yet in all these works it is Donaldson’s sense of the joy of life and living that comes across most strongly” (2).

So maybe Judith is a respite from Queens and Prime Ministers, a journey to the lowlands of Scotland where he was “a wee bastard who was bairned up a close in Coatbridge.”  And a tribute to the freedom that comes from smiting your nemesis.

(c) Marysia Donaldson; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

David Abercrombie Donaldson, “Margaret Hilda Roberts (b.1925), Mrs Denis Thatcher, Prime Minister,” 1986, Oil on canvas, 101 x 91.5 cm, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland, UK

(1) written for The Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery by Marion Lawson, History of Art Department, University of Glasgow 1984 

(2) Joanna Soden, Obituary of David Donaldson, The Independent, August 27,1996

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Posted by on March 28, 2013 in Distracted


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