This reflective depiction of Judith, about to slay the Babylonian general Holofernes after seducing him, is a magnificent study of character, full of pathos. Judith became celebrated as a saviour of the Hebrew people, and the story was much depicted in Renaissance art. Poynter’s depiction was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery, the show-case for the avant-garde, in 1881, five years after the Gallery’s foundation. The picture retains its original classically ornamented frame designed by the artist, which features theatrical masks. These subtly reinforce both the antiquity of the subject, and the sense of tragic narrative.
When exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1881 a critic wrote: ‘The reading of the character is original. Judith has a magnificent head of the Jewish type. There is something subtle and cruelly resolute about her golden tinted lean features, which are high-wrought, nervous and over-susceptible, yet noble in their way, and have been drawn and modelled with completeness and in beautiful style. These features have the fineness of highly wrought bronze. Judith’s dark hair is bound by a tawny kerchief; about her neck is a row of deep blue beads. She is in the act of drawing a dagger with a hilt of jade. This is a new and truer type of the avenger of Israel than the big, blonde woman of Northern origin who generally does the deed of blood’.
The necklace that Judith wears are either rough-cut turquoise or blue ceramic beads, separated on a simple strand by coral, green and gold beads. It is probably an Egyptian necklace and a similar example can be seen around the neck of Frances Catherine Howell, the wife of Charles Augustus Howell, in her portrait by Frederick Sandys at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. The daggerhead appears to be a jade horsehead, most probably Asian. Poynter chose accessories for his pictures for their aesthetic suitability rather than their historical accurateness. His portrait of Helen of Troy is seen wearing an Indian necklace (1881, Art Gallery of New South Wales).
Poynter was born in Paris; his father was the architect Ambrose Poynter, his mother the grand-daughter of the sculptor Thomas Banks. He decided to become a painter on meeting Frederic Leighton in Rome in 1854, and Leighton remained his lifetime mentor and hero. Having studied briefly at Leigh's drawing academy and the Royal Academy Schools in London, Poynter went to Paris in 1856 for further study in the atelier of Charles Gleyre, a follower of the great J.A.D. Ingres; and it was here that he absorbed the principles of sound academic draughtsmanship that were to be his forte as an artist (for drawings by Poynter see lots 16 and 26).
Poynter began to exhibit at the Royal Academy in 1861, but he did not find fame until 1865, when he showed Faithful unto Death (Liverpool), an emotive image of a Roman soldier remaining staunchly at his post during the destruction of Pompeii. In 1866 he married Agnes Macdonald, whose sister Georgiana was married to Burne-Jones and in 1867 he scored another success at the RA with Israel in Egypt (Guildhall Art Gallery, London), an elaborate and ambitious work in which he displayed both his academic understanding of the nude and an Alma-Tadema-like capacity for archaeological precision. During the late 1860s and early 1870s he was also involved in a number of major decorative projects: the tile-work for the Grill Room in South Kensington (1868-70, Victoria and Albert Museum, London), a mosaic in the Houses of Parliament (1869), and four large historical paintings for the billiard room at Wortley Hall, near Sheffield (1871-9). During the 1880s and 1890s he continued to produce large classical pictures. He next worked on his most ambitious picture, the Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon (1884–90, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney). Increasingly, however, the majority of his exhibition contributions were small-scale, classical genre pictures.
Poynter is remembered today not only as an artist but as an outstanding teacher. His pedagogic career began when he was appointed to run the newly-founded Slade School of Art, London, in 1871. He immediately introduced the principles of French art education that he had imbibed himself, and although he resigned in 1875, his place was taken by a Frenchman, Alphonse Legros, while Poynter himself maintained French teaching methods when he moved on to become principal of the National Art Training School at South Kensington. Although he continued to paint to the end, and even resigned the South Kensington post in 1881 because he felt his creative work was suffering, Poynter remained deeply involved in art administration. In 1894 he accepted the directorship of the National Gallery, which at the time traditionally went to a practising artist. He held the post until 1904, combining it for eight years with that of President of the Royal Academy in 1896. He is the only artist ever to have occupied the two positions concurrently, while in remaining PRA until 1918, a year before his death, he enjoyed one of the longest tenures of any incumbent. He was knighted in 1896 and created a baronet in 1902.