Henry Raeburn painted The Skating Minister in 1795. It is one of the most recognizable artworks by a Scottish painter.
This oil on canvas painting depicts a man dressed in black, effortlessly gliding across a frozen lake, it is an enigmatic and beautiful oil painting. The brushwork is fluid and spontaneous, with the Scottish landscape beautifully presented in a subtle range of pinks, browns, and grays.
This famous ice-skating painting is a thoroughly unusual yet striking artwork by Sir Henry Raeburn. Henry Raeburn was already a renowned society portraitist when he created this oil on canvas painting in 1795.
Although the attribution is widely accepted today, little information is available concerning the painting’s authorship. The painting remained in possession of the subject’s family for many years and was unknown by the general public until 1949, when it came up for sale at Christie’s auction house.
The relative scarcity of documentation and its unusual composition (especially for Raeburn’s more traditional oeuvre) prompted some art historians to question the authorship. Some claimed Henri-Pierre Danloux (the French painter and draftsman) could be a potential candidate.
Despite this, the minister’s family was certain Henry Raeburn was the actual artist.
Created during the height of the Scottish Enlightenment, Raeburn’s The Skating Minister is a beautiful example of Scottish art and scholarship.
Aside from its immense artistic skill, akin to Raeburn’s many other portraits, such as that of Walter Scott and Alexander Ranaldson MacDonnell of Glengarry, art historians struggle to explain the enormous enduring popular appeal of this skating churchman.
Perhaps the painting’s charm lies in the faintly amusing topic. It’s rare to see one’s minister skating gracefully past. However, look closely enough, and it’s possible to make out just the faintest hints of a smile.
Could this serious man of God have a wry sense of humor and a playful demeanor? Perhaps. Nonetheless, Henry Raeburn maintains the minister’s dignity with the simplicity of the composition and his expert skating.
The entire painting juxtaposes white with dark, seriousness with play, serenity, and dynamism, making it a unique work. Indeed, the painting is both a sporting image and a masterfully created portrait; a true amalgamation of styles.
Henry Raeburn’s Skating Minister depicts the Reverend Robert Walker.
Minister at the Canongate Kirk, he presided over a prominent Presbyterian church on Edinburgh’s High Street. A relatively strict and austere branch of the Protestant church, Presbyterianism traces its roots to the Church of Scotland.
Within this movement, the reformist teachings of John Calvin are a substantial theological foundation. The church emphasizes the ultimate sovereignty of divine will, the authority of the Scriptures, and the necessity of God’s undeserved grace won through faith in Christ.
Raised in Rotterdam, Holland (possibly where he learned to skate), Walker wears skates fashioned in the Dutch style.
From what’s known of Reverend Walker, he was an incredibly active member of society. He was well-liked and possessed a famed sense of dry humor. A prominent member of the Edinburgh Skating Society, Revered Walker also regularly honed his skills on Duddingston Loch, which is situated just south of Edinburgh’s Holyrood Park and a familiar spot for local skaters.
For this reason, art historians confidently place the portrait at Duddingston Loch.
The exact meaning of The Skating Minister remains a mystery. Despite this, we know Walker and Raeburn were close friends. When Reverend Walker died in 1808, Raeburn became a trustee of his estate.
While there’s no direct evidence they skated together, the painting certainly has a kind and affectionate feeling. Consequently, some posit it could have been a memento of friendship. Indeed, the excellent care of composition (including the delicate lines the skates make on the ice and Walker’s exact facial features) points to a wonderfully assured yet careful painting.
Today, The Skating Minister hangs in the National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh. As an iconic oil on canvas painting, it secured Sir Henry Raeburn’s place amongst the canon of great Scottish painters.
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