Clara McDonald Williamson, painter, was born November 20, 1875, in Iredell, Texas, the second of six children born to Thomas and Mary Lasswell McDonald. Her formal education was sporadic; she attended school only when she was not needed at home. Her keen memory and habit of reading after a chore was completed enabled her to keep up with the others her age. At age twenty McDonald moved to Waxahachie to work for an uncle in the county clerk's office. She taught herself to type and take dictation, and her attempts to copy sketches of land for court documents provided her first experience with drawing. Seven years later a change in the political situation left her without a job. She returned to Iredell, where she soon agreed to marry John Williamson, a widower with two young children; they had a son in 1905. For the next few years Williamson devoted herself to her home and children and helped her husband to establish a successful dry-goods store. In 1920 the Williamsons moved to Dallas, where they operated a boarding house from their large home and opened a new store. Following her husband's death in August 1943, sixty-eight year old Clara McDonald Williamson was faced with the problem of filling empty days for the first time in her life.
Williamson began to sketch everything around her, using pencil and charcoal and later watercolors. She audited a drawing class at Southern Methodist University in the fall of 1943, but felt more comfortable in the evening painting classes at the Dallas Museum School. Here Williamson was encouraged to develop her own style. In a still-life class led by Otis Dozier, Williamson painted her first "memory painting," Chicken for Dinner (1945). Her largest group of work consists of these memory paintings, happy moments isolated from her hardworking childhood. The Night Before Christmas (1954), Texas Barn Dance (1951) and the extraordinary Standing in the Need of Prayer (1947), in which she represented a torchlit revival meeting under evening stars, recreated the special events that animated life on the frontier. McDonald also documented everyday activities such as washing clothes in Monday (1955) and carding, spinning, and weaving in The Family Room (1955). Many of her memory paintings tell a story, often a humorous one, as in The Girls Went Fishing (1945–46), in which a group of skinny-dipping boys are surprised by the arrival of several young women. Though such childhood memories are popular subjects for naive painters, McDonald also chose subjects unique to her time and place. She represented the cattle drive passing near Iredell in two paintings, Git 'Long Little Dogies (1945) and Old Chisholm Trail (1952). The technological developments that transformed Texas are featured in several important paintings. In The Building of the Railroad (1949–50), the train is depicted rolling to the end of the tracks, filled with ties, track, and supplies needed to extend the line. Williamson's first ride in a car and her first sight of a plane occurred on the same day and are commemorated in Transportation, The Old and the New, Circa 1919, Meridian, Texas (1963). In the painting a passing train is represented in the background, and Williamson sits in an early model car shown in the middle ground, one of an admiring audience watching a plane land in the foreground. The plane represented was the first to land in Bosque County. Williamson also painted religious and visionary works and recorded events from her contemporary life in Dallas. She rarely painted the same subject twice.
Williamson never fully mastered traditional one-point perspective, but she had an innate sense of design. She frequently filled her canvases with many figures; an open gate, a path, or a figure with its back turned was often placed in the foreground to lead the viewer into the picture plane. Williamson's ability to convey the luminous clarity of Texas' skies was exceptional. She favored subtle color harmonies, as in Arbor Meeting (1957), where gray, rose, blue, and sage green colors suggest an early evening atmosphere. Although Williamson's compositions were generally dynamic, she occasionally made adjustments to complement subject matter; in The Day the Bosque Froze Over (1953), for example, the figures posed on the frozen river have a stiff, formal quality to produce a gelid atmosphere. Williamson sold her first work, an early watercolor, to Jerry Bywaters, then director of the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts (later the Dallas Museum of Art). Donald Vogel, an artist and dealer who promoted Williamson's work, entered her paintings in numerous competitive exhibitions throughout the state. She won the Dealey Purchase Award at the Dallas Allied Arts Exhibit in 1946, and in 1948 she was the subject of a solo exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. Her national reputation grew as her work was exhibited in New York, Florida, Illinois, Colorado, California, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, and Washington. Williamson was represented in the 1950 exhibition "American Painting Today" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and her work was included in three traveling exhibitions organized by the Smithsonian Institution, one of which toured Europe and Scandinavia. She was honored by several solo exhibitions at galleries and businesses in Dallas, San Antonio, Fort Worth, Longview, and New York. In 1966 her work was included in the "International Exhibition of Primitive Art" in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, and the Amon Carter Museum organized a retrospective of her work that traveled to the Oklahoma Art Center, Oklahoma City; the Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum, San Antonio; and the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. The retrospective exhibition was accompanied by a comprehensive catalogue of Williamson's life and work that was written by Donald and Margaret Vogel. In 1969 a documentary film of Williamson's career was aired on national television.
Williamson, affectionately referred to as "Aunt Clara" within the art community, did not court the recognition that she received. She turned down a solo exhibition in a New York gallery early in her painting career; when discussing her career in general she noted that she had refused to "sign on the dotted line" for fear that "they'd tell me what to paint, how to paint it, and when to paint." She painted for the challenge and the pleasure that it provided, and casually gave away some paintings to her friends and relatives. Williamson finished her last painting, a memory picture of her home near the SMU campus, in a nursing home that she entered in 1966. She died at the age of 100 on February 17, 1976. Her work is included in the collections of the Dallas Museum of Art, the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, the Wichita Art Museum in Kansas, the Terry Art Institute in Miami, Florida, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.