Henry Raeburn
Biography of Scottish Portrait Artist.

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The Reverend Robert Walker
Skating on Duddingston Loch
(The Skating Minister)
(1795) National Gallery of Scotland

Henry Raeburn (1756-1823)

The Scottish portraitist, Henry Raeburn was one of the best portrait artists of his day, and one of the great contributors to English Figurative Painting. However, unlike many of his contemporaries, he chose to remain in Scotland, rather than seek work in London. First apprenticed to Gilliland, a goldsmith, he was later employed as a miniaturist and appears to have been largely self-taught in the field of painting. Away from the rivalries of London, he developed his own bold and distinctive style of portrait art, as exemplified by one of his greatest portrait paintings, known as The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch "The Skating Minister" (1795, National Gallery of Scotland), also known as The Skating Minister. Raeburn went on to paint some of the most influential figures in society, including Sir John Sinclair (c.1794) and Sir Walter Scott (1823, both at the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh). Raeburn painted over 700 portraits: In addition, he was also one of the best miniaturists in Scotland.

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For the best works, see:
Greatest Paintings.

For a list of the most important
portraitist, history painters and
landscape artists in oils and
watercolours, during the
eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries, (1700-1900) see:
Best English Painters.

For an idea of the pigments
used by Henry Raeburn, see:
Colour Palette Eighteenth Century.

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.

Artistic Training

Raeburn was born in Edinburgh in 1756. Orphaned at a young age, he was raised by his older brother. At the age of 15, he was apprenticed to a Goldsmith, where he learned to craft jewellery and paint tiny drawings on ivory. His drawing was so highly regarded, that he quickly moved on to miniature portrait painting of local patrons. Encouraged by the success of his sales, he started to teach himself oil painting. In 1775, Gilliland was so impressed by his apprentice that he introduced him to the artist David Martin, who was assistant to the famous portraitist Allan Ramsay (1713–84). Raeburn studied briefly with Martin, copying portraits and painting miniatures. Around this time he also met a widow of considerable wealth, whom he married within one month of meeting.

For an explanation of the
terminology, see:
Art: Definition and Meaning.


In 1778 he came to London and consulted Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–92) about his painting. Reynolds was England's most influential 18th century English painter who specialised in painting portraits in the 'grand manner'. He was also one of the founders and first President of the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Reynolds told Raeburn to go to Rome and pay particular attention to the works of the great High Renaissance draughtsmen like Michelangelo (1475–1564) and Raphael (1483–1520), and accordingly to Italy in 1785 he went. But there is no evidence in his work to show that he carried out the rest of Reynolds' advice. No signs of Michelangelo or the 'grand manner' can be detected anywhere in Raeburn's painting, indeed some historians have suggested that what he studied most in Italy was the portrait by Velazquez of Pope Innocent IV in the Vatican.


George Street Edinburgh

After two years in Rome, Raeburn and his wife returned and settled in Edinburgh in 1787, opening a studio on George Street, still one of the most fashionable streets in Scotland. Rome however, appears to have had little effect on Raeburn's artistic development. He had already carved out his own style, a style which relied strongly on chiaroscuro for modelling his figures. He maintained this style throughout his career with little change.

Early Paintings

Raeburn's output was prolific. His earliest portrait was that of George Chalmers in 1776 (Dunfermline Town Council). He made no preliminary drawings, preferring to work directly onto canvas. In contrast to Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88) whose work was characterised by smooth brushstrokes, Raeburn employed more clashing colours and coarse modelling of his figures. To some extent he anticipated the loose brushstroke of the Impressionists. Some examples of his early portraits include Janet Dundas (c.1790, private collection); David Anderson (c.1790, The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC); Sir John and Lady Clerk of Penicuik (1792, The Beit Collection, Russborough, Co. Wicklow); Miss Eleanor Urquhart (c.1793, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC) and Thomas Reid (1796, National Trust for Scotland, Fyvie Castle). Raeburn appears to have been a lucky sort in life, many of his well to do clients, including Sir Walter Scott and Henry Mackenzie happened to be living in Edinburgh at the time. Most portrait artists had to move to London to find the same sort of clientele.

The Skating Minister (1795)

This is perhaps Raeburn's best known work, and is a particularly popular image in today's poster art. The oil painting depicts the Minister Robert Walker skating on a frozen lake, against a pale and ominous landscape. The figure is shown in profile, arms crossed in the proper manner for 'genteel rolling'. The hazy indistinct background is contrasted against the detail of the Ministers skate laces and the fine skating marks he leaves in the ice, which hark back to Raeburn’s apprentice as a goldsmith. The painting was practically unknown until about 1949, but today it is probably one of Scotland's most famous images, a symbol of the Scottish Enlightenment, a period during the 18th century when Scotland celebrated a number of intellectual and scientific accomplishments. It involved scientists, architects, sociologists, historians, poets and artists. However, in recent years this particular painting has attracted some controversy: notably when a curator from the Scottish National Portrait Gallery suggested that the picture was in fact by the French artist Henri-Pierre Danloux (1753-1809), who was living in Scotland at the time.

Raeburn was elected to the Royal Academy in 1815 and in 1822 he was knighted. In 1823 he was appointed His Majesty's Limner for Scotland. He died at Edinburgh in 1823. His paintings can be seen in the best art museums in Scotland and around the world.


Raeburn has left particularly illuminating record of society in the Scottish capital, in much the same way as did Van Dyck of the Court of Charles I. His best portraits are of Highland chieftains in national costume, old Scottish ladies, judges and other legal characters. And whoever his sitter there is the same penetrating sense of character and the same sure touch. Sir Henry Raeburn's natural place in art is with the likes of Diego Velazquez, Edouard Manet, and above all John Singer Sargent, to whom he was particularly close. In his Portrait of John Home, for instance, in the National Portrait Gallery, his brushwork anticipates Sargent's with extraordinary precision. In his backgrounds, however, 18th century conventions still ruled, which disqualifies many of his portraits from entering the class of a Velazquez or a Manet. But if he had lived fifty years later, when the last traces of 18th century artificiality had vanished, he might have become one of the greatest of naturalistic portrait-painters.

• For biographies of other Scottish artists, see: Famous Painters.
• For more information painting in Scotland, see: Homepage.

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