The present work derives from a large triptych purchased by the Scottish Academy and hung in the octagonal room the National Gallery of Scotland. Dennis Farr notes in his book William Etty (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958) that the first of the original three component parts, 'Judith', which makes up the central piece of our work was purchased by the Royal Scottish Academy in 1929 for 300 guineas subsequently to its exhibition at the RA in 1827 (no.12),( Farr, p.135). In it we see Judith, standing before the sleeping Holofernes, her dagger raised, and her eyes turned to heaven in a prayer for strength to execute the task she has come to perform. The two wings, Farr notes (ibid p.136), were commissioned by the Royal Scottish Academy in 1929 as pendants to 'Judith'. The right hand section of the work appeared three years later at the RA in 1830 (no.124). This is the last part of the narrative, depicting Judith passing the head of Holofernes to her maid. The last piece and left hand wing appeared at the RA in 1831 (no.79), showing Judith's maid waiting anxiously outside the tent for her mistress's return.
The choice of theme perhaps owes something to Etty's - and indeed other British contemporaries drive to compete with rival schools on the continent. History painting had long been seen as the highest form of art in Europe. The monumental works of Géricault and Delacroix were much admired and Etty's inscription "Honour and glory to the next Exhibition! we must keep the foreigners from fooling us!" on the reverse of 'Judith' implies a desire to equal if not surpass their achievements. The subject of Judith and Holofernes is one concerned with patriotism and devotion to one's people, but equally to God.
As with many works by Etty, his mixing of bitumen with the paint in an effort to intensify the darker tones has meant the finished pieces are now in a poor state of repair. Happily the discovery of this smaller sketch, typical in its vigorous brushwork and spirited handling give us an idea of the artist's conception of the three works united as he had intended.