David Wilkie
Biography of Scottish Genre Painter.

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The Blind Fiddler (1806)
Tate Gallery, London.

David Wilkie (1785-1841)


Painter of Scottish History
Training and Early Works
Development of His Style
Influential Genre Painter
Scottish Academy of Art

Distraining for Rent (1815)
Scottish National Gallery. One of
Wilkie's greatest genre paintings
it shows the landlord's bailiff
arranging the seizure of goods
from the impoverished tenant farmer,
to pay for arrears of rent. Neighbours
protest angrily, to no avail.


One of the best genre painters of his day, the Scottish artist David Wilkie was an important contributor to English figurative painting. At the age of 20, after training in Edinburgh, he moved to London where he attended the schools of the Royal Academy. The following year, his genre painting Village Politicians (1806, Private Collection) was acclaimed at the annual Royal Academy exhibition. Five years later he became one of the youngest ever Royal Academicians, younger even than JMW Turner (1775-1851). Influenced by 17th century Dutch Realist genre painting, his own works include: The Blind Fiddler (1806, Tate Gallery); The Letter of Introduction (1813) and Distraining for Rent (1815) both in the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh; Reading the Will (1820, Neue Pinakothek, Munich); The Preaching of Knox before the Lords of the Congregation (1822, Tate); and Chelsea Pensioners Reading the Gazette of the Battle of Waterloo (1822, Wellington Museum, London). As well as genre works, Wilkie also excelled at portrait art, as exemplified by The Chalmers Bethune Family (1804, NGS), and history painting.

For an idea of the pigments
used by David Wilkie, see:
Colour Palette Nineteenth Century.

For later 19th century painters
active in Scotland, see:
Glasgow School of Painting (1880s)

For the best works, see:
Greatest Paintings.

Painter of Scottish History

David Wilkie is known within the wider British tradition as the founder of the school of nineteenth-century genre painting. His followers include the highly popular genre painter William Powell Frith (1819-1909). In terms of Scottish painting he is recognized in addition as one of the country's best portrait artists and as a pioneer of the interpretation of Scottish history, which was to be such a significant trend in the latter part of the century. He defines his generation by drawing together the developments of the eighteenth century and extending and amplifying them for the new century. The philosophers of the Enlightenment were interested in the nature of perception, the nature of the self, the nature of society and the nature of history and they helped to lay the foundations for what we now call the social sciences. It is this social scientific territory that Wilkie explored in art. Speaking at a dinner in his honour in Rome in 1827, he reflected on the interdependence of ideas and art when he commented that "no art that is not intellectual can be worthy of Scotland".

Training and Early Paintings

Born in Fife, the son of a Presbyterian minister, Wilkie attended the Trustees' Academy as early as 1799, and in Edinburgh he came into contact with both the portrait and landscape painter Alexander Nasmyth (1758-1840) and the portraitist Henry Raeburn (1756-1823). Like his contemporaries Alexander Carse (1770-1843), John Burnet (1784-1868) and James Howe (1780—1836), he was deeply impressed by David Allan's work, in particular the illustrations for the Gentle Shepherd by the portrait master Allan Ramsay (1713-84). In his twentieth year he showed his quality and range as an artist. The Chalmers Bethune Family (1804, NGS), even more than Raeburn's Sir John and Lady Clerk of Penicuik, conveys the nature of a relationship or rather a set of relationships. Wilkie paints this family as a totality, that is to say he shows the way each member relates to every other and the way they relate to him as an artist.

NOTE: For other late 18th- and early 19th-century figure painters in London, see: the eminent Joshua Reynolds (1723-92), the natural Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830), and the Irish artists Sir Martin Archer Shee (1769-1850) and William Mulready (1786-1863).



Development of His Style

Another remarkable early work influenced by Alexander Carse, Pitlessie Fair (1804, NGS), extends this social theme while making clear his interest in the Dutch genre tradition. Its success enabled Wilkie to move to London in 1805 to study at the Royal Academy. London was to be his base for the rest of his career (and he was ranked alongside the best English painters) but, as with Ramsay, the Scottish intellectual tradition was always his point of reference. Works such as the Village Politicians (1806) and The Blind Fiddler (1806, NGS) can be read as visual manifestos of the pioneering medical study of human expression by the Edinburgh surgeon and anatomist Charles Bell (1774-1842). Wilkie contributed an illustration to Bell's The Anatomy of Expression in Painting, published in 1806, and it should be noted that Bell was himself a master of drawing, having trained with David Allan. As Duncan Macmillan has pointed out, this is the context for the interest shown in Wilkie's work by the French painter Theodore Gericault (1791-1824) when he visited Wilkie's studio in 1821. Wilkie's investigation of social and economic reality is illustrated by Distraining for Rent (1815, NGS) and The Penny Wedding (1818). The former is an implied critique of the landlord class and was not well received by Wilkie's patrons. The Penny Wedding is both a reversion to the commercially safe territory of folk-art and a deliberate contrast to Distraining for Rent. Drawing on David Allan it evokes a Highland golden age of rural community and mutual support where Niel Gow still plays his fiddle.

Influential Genre Painter

The Dutch painters of low life were Wilkie's main inspiration, and he may fairly be ranked with the likes of Adriaen Brouwer (1605-38), Adriaen Van Ostade (1610-85) and Gerard Terborch (1617-81), in spite of the sentimental vein in his work which belongs entirely to his own age. As it was, his understanding of earlier Scottish genre painting and its debt to Dutch Baroque art was highly influential both north and south of the Border. Scottish painters directly influenced by him at this time include, as well as John Burnet, Alexander Fraser (1785-1865), William Lizars (1788-1859), William Kidd (1790-1863), Walter Geikie (1795-1837), and George Harvey (1806-1876). A later generation which included John Phillip (1817-67), Erskine Nicol (1825-1904) and the brothers John (1818-1902) and Thomas Faed (1826-1900) took Wilkie-influenced genre painting into the second half of the nineteenth century, although by then the late-Enlightenment project on which Wilkie himself was engaged had been forgotten.


Linda Colley has recognized Wilkie's perceptiveness by drawing attention to his painting The Chelsea Pensioners Reading the Gazette of the Battle of Waterloo (1822) as a discourse on the complex nature of a British identity brought into focus by the Napoleonic Wars. Wilkie's 1822 sketch of The Preaching of Knox before the Lords of the Congregation, 10 July, 1559 can be considered a cognate reflection on the pluralistic nature of Scottishness through the contrasted historical and psychological positions of John Knox and Mary Queen of Scots. Such cultural and ideological comparison is at the heart of Wilkie's art and he lost no time in travelling to France, Italy and Spain as soon as the end of the Napoleonic wars allowed. The success of his Spanish work, greatly influenced by Velazquez, encouraged both David Roberts and later John Phillip to explore that country. At the same time Wilkie continued to develop specifically Scottish aspects of his work including illustrations to the poems and songs of Robert Burns which culminate in his work The Cotter's Saturday Night (1837), which has elements reminiscent of Rembrandt.

His last journey was to Turkey and the Holy Land to observe the culture of the Ottoman Empire and see for himself the sites of Biblical events. In these examples of Orientalist painting one finds an appreciation of other cultures, a respect for religious observance and above all a sense of shared humanity. He observed the life of Jerusalem or Istanbul just as he had observed the life of Fife or Italy or Spain. Had he not died at sea on his homeward journey, it may be that the exoticism which came to define Orientalism in Britain would have been counterbalanced by his careful and sympathetic cultural anthropology. It is Wilkie's integrity of vision that led JMW Turner, his great rival at the Royal Academy in London, to paint Peace, Burial at Sea (1842, Tate Gallery) as his memorial.

Royal Scottish Academy of Art

The career of David Wilkie, along with those of his illustrious predecessors and contemporaries, like Ramsay, Raeburn and Nasmyth consolidated the achievement of earlier Scottish painters. The need for a representative body for Scottish artists was now pressing and in 1826 a group formed themselves into the Scottish Academy. This was in part a reaction to the formation in 1819 of the Institution for the Encouragement of Fine Arts in Scotland as a body to present exhibitions. That organization had rapidly lost credibility by excluding practising artists from its decision-making in favour of a board described by Esme Gordon, the historian of the Academy, as "a body of autocratic, aristocratic men". The scene was set for a number of tussles between the two bodies. The situation was sorted out with the help of the distinguished lawyer Lord Cockburn by what was in effect (although not in principle) a merger. In due course in 1835 the Royal Institution building on Princes Street became the home of Scottish Academy exhibitions but it was seventy-five years before the name of the building itself was changed to "The Royal Scottish Academy", the Royal Charter having been given in 1837. It should also be noted that the members of the Royal Scottish Academy were seminal in the establishment of the National Gallery of Scotland, which opened to the public in 1859.

Paintings by David Wilkie can be seen in many of the best art museums throughout the world.

We gratefully acknowledge the use of material from "Scottish art" by Murdo Macdonald, published by Thames & Hudson, 2000, a book we strongly recommend for all students of Scottish painting.

• For biographies of other 19th century artists, see: Famous Painters.
• For more details of painting in Scotland, see: Homepage.

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