1902 Encyclopedia > Sir David Wilkie

Sir David Wilkie
Scottish painter
(1785-1841)




SIR DAVID WILKIE (1785-1841), Scottish subject-painter, was born on 18th November 1785, the son of the parish minister of Cults in Fifeshire. He very early de-veloped an extraordinary love for art: ho was accustomed to say that he could draw before he could read and paint before he could spell, and at school he used to barter his sketches and portraits for slate-pencils and marbles. He was also noted for his keen and constant observation of the village life around him ; and a friend has recorded that he "liked better to stand and look at his companions at their games than to join in their play." In 1799, after he had attended school at Pitlessie, Kettle, and Cupar, his father reluctantly yielded to his desire to become a painter; and through the influence of the earl of Leven Wilkie was admitted to the Trustees' Academy in Edinburgh, and began the study of art under John Graham, the able teacher of the school. From William Allan (afterwards Sir William Allan and president of the Royal Scottish Academy) and John Burnet, the engraver of Wilkie's works, we have an interesting account of his early studies, of his indomitable persever-ance and power of close application, of his habit of haunting fairs and market-places, and transferring to his sketch-book all that struck him as characteristic and telling in figure or incident, and of his admiration for the works of Carse and David Allan, two Scottish painters of scenes from humble life. Among his pictures of this period are mentioned a subject from Macbeth, Ceres in Search of Proserpine, and Diana and Calisto, which in 1803 gained a premium of ten guineas at the Trustees' Academy, while his pencil portraits of himself and his mother, dated that year, and now in the possession of the duke of Buccleuch, prove that he had already attained considerable certainty of touch and power of rendering character. A scene from Allan Ramsay, and a sketch from Macneill's ballad of Scot-land's Skaith, afterwards developed into the well-known Village Politicians, were the first subjects in which his true artistic individuality began to assert itself.
In 1804 Wilkie returned to Cults, established himself in the manse, and commenced his first important subject-picture, Pitlessie Fair, which includes about 140 figures, and in which he introduced portraits of his neighbours and of several members of his family circle. This work, which was purchased by Kinnear of Kinloch for ¿625, is rather hot and unpleasant in tone and colouring ; but it is a picture of the greatest interest and promise, so full of incident and character as to justify its painter's remark, when he saw it twelve years afterwards, that it contains " more subject and entertainment than any other three pictures which I have since produced." In addition to this elaborate figure-piece, Wilkie was much employed at the time upon portraits, both at home and in Kinghorn, St Andrews, and Aberdeen.
In the spring of 1805 he left Scotland for London, carrying with him his Bounty-Money, or the Village Recruit, which he soon disposed of for £6, and began to study in the schools of the Royal Academy. One of his first patrons in London was Stodart, a pianoforte maker, a distant connexion of the Wilkie family, who commis-sioned his portrait and other works and introduced the young artist to the dowager countess of Mansfield. This lady's son was the purchaser of the Village Politicians, which attracted great attention when it was exhibited in the Royal Academy of 1806, where it was followed in the succeeding year by the Blind Fiddler, a commission from the painter's lifelong friend Sir George Beaumont. Wilkie now turned aside into the paths of historical art, and painted his Alfred in the Neatherd's Cottage, for the gallery illustrative of English history which was being formed by Alexander Davison. The picture was executed with the most conscientious care, and subjected to many alterations, but in the end it proved far from a success. It bears no vivid impress of reality; the figure of the king is wanting in dignity and character; indeed the subject was one for which the artist had no essential sympathy, and into which he was unable to project his imagination effectively. After its completion he wisely returned to genre-painting, producing the Card-Players and the admir-able picture of the Rent Day, which was composed during recovery from a fever contracted in 1807 while on a visit to his native village. His next great work was the Ale-House Door, afterwards entitled the Village Festival (now in the National Gallery), which was purchased by J. J. Angerstein for 800 guineas. It has been styled by Leslie " the most artificial of Wilkie's earlier productions." Its figures seem rather small for the extent of canvas; but the separate groups are excellent, and in its handling, in the exquisite delicacy and refinement of touch, and in the variety and beauty of its broken tints it bears marks of the most distinct progress. It was followed in 1813 by the well-known Blind Man's Buff, a commission from the prince regent, to which a companion picture, the Penny Wedding, was added in 1818.
Meanwhile Wilkie's eminent success in art had been rewarded by professional honours. In November 1809 he was elected an associate of the Royal Academy, when he had hardly attained the age prescribed by its laws, and in February 1811 he became a full academician. In 1812 he opened an exhibition of his collected works in Pall Mall, but the experiment was unsuccessful, entailing pecuniary loss upon the artist. In 1814 he executed the Letter of Introduction, one of the most delicately finished and perfect of his cabinet pictures. In the same year he made his first visit to the Continent, and at Paris entered upon a profitable and delighted study of the works of art collected in the Louvre. Interesting particulars of the time are preserved in his own matter-of-fact diary, and in the more sprightly and flowing pages of the journal of Haydon, his fellow-traveller. On his return he began Distraining for Rent, one of the most popular and dramatic of his works. In 1816 he made a tour through Holland and Belgium in company with Raimbach, the engraver of many of his paintings. The Sir Walter Scott and his Family, a cabinet-sized picture with small full-length figures in the dress of Scottish peasants, was the result of a visit to Abbotsford in 1818. Reading a Will, a commission

from the king of Bavaria, now in the New Pinakothek at Munich, was completed in 1820; and two years later the great picture of Chelsea Pensioners Beading the Gazette of the Battle of Waterloo, commissioned by the duke of Wellington in 1816, at a cost of 1200 guineas, was ex-hibited at the Royal Academy. The subject was a par-ticularly happy one, and was carried out with the greatest fulness of incident and variety of character; it appealed powerfully to the popular sentiment of the time, while the accomplished and masterly technique of the work won the admiration of the artistic portion of the public.
In 1822 Wilkie visited Edinburgh, in order to select from the royal progress of George IV. a fitting subject for a picture. The Reception of the King at the Entrance of Holyrood Palace was the incident ultimately chosen; and in the following year, when the artist, upon the death of Raeburn, had been appointed royal limner for Scotland, he received sittings from the monarch, and began to work diligently upon the subject. But several years elapsed before its completion ; for, like all such ceremonial works, it proved a harassing commission, uncongenial to the painter while in progress and unsatisfactory when finished. His health suffered from the strain to which he was subjected, and his condition was aggravated by heavy domestic trials and responsibilities. In 1825 he sought relief in foreign travel: after visiting Paris, he passed into Italy, where, at Rome, he received the news of fresh disasters through the failure of his publishers. A residence at Toplitz and Carlsbad was tried in 1826, with little good result, and then Wilkie returned to Italy, to Venice and Florence. The summer of 1827 was spent in Geneva, where he had sufficiently recovered to paint his Princess Doria Washing the Pilgrims' Feet, a work which, like several small pictures executed at Rome, was strongly influenced by the Italian art by which the painter had been surrounded. In October he passed into Spain, whence he returned to England in June 1828.
It is impossible to over-estimate the influence upon Wilkie's art of these three years of foreign travel. It amounts to nothing short of a complete change of style. Up to the period of his leaving England he had been mainly influenced by the Dutch genre-painters, whose technique he had carefully studied, whose works he fre-quently kept beside him in his studio for reference as he painted, and whose method he applied to the rendering of those scenes of English and Scottish life of which he was so close and faithful an observer. Teniers, in particular, appears to have been his chief master; and in his earlier productions we find the sharp, precise, spirited touch, the rather subdued colouring, and the clear, silvery grey tone which distinguish this master; while in his subjects of a slightly later period,—those, such as the Chelsea Pen-sioners, the Highland Whisky Still, and the Rabbit on the Wall, executed in what Burnet styles his second manner, which, however, may be regarded as only the development and maturity of his first,—he begins to unite to the qualities of Teniers that greater richness and fulness of effect which are characteristic of Ostade. But now he experienced the spell of the Italian masters, and of Velaz-quez and the great Spaniards. His change of feeling is accurately marked in an entry in his journal during his last visit to The Hague. " One feels wearied," he writes, " with the perfections of the minor Dutch paintings, and finds relief in contemplating even the imperfect sketches and incomplete thoughts of those great Italians. My friend Woodburn used to say when we were in Italy that 'all collectors begin with Dutch pictures but end with Italian.'"
In the works which Wilkie produced in his final period he exchanged the detailed handling, the delicate finish, and the reticent hues of his earlier works for a style dis-tinguished by breadth of touch, largeness of effect, richness of tone, and full force of melting and powerful colour. His subjects, too, were no longer the homely things of the genre-painter : with his broader method he attempted the portrayal of scenes from history, suggested for the most part by the associations of his foreign travel. His change of style and change of subject were severely criticized at the time; to some extent he lost his hold upon the public, who regretted the familiar subjects and the interest and pathos of his earlier productions, and were less ready to follow him into the historic scenes towards which this final phase of his art sought to lead them. The popular verdict had in it a basis of truth: Wilkie was indeed greatest as a genre-painter. He possessed the keenest in-stinct for the portrayal of what was around him, the truest insight for the effective selection, the artistic and telling combination, of the things that met his every-day sight, and were dear to him through life-long nearness; but he was destitute of that higher and more recondite kind of imagination which " bodies forth the form of things un-seen," and gives life and reality to its re-creations of the past. It is, however, undoubtedly true that on technical grounds his change of style was criticized with undue severity. While his later works are admittedly more fre-quently faulty in form and draughtsmanship than those of his earlier period, some of them at least (the Bride's Toilet, 1837, for instance) show a true gain and development in power of handling, and in mastery over complex and for-cible colour harmonies. Most of Wilkie's foreign subjects, —the Pifferari, Princess Doria, the Maid of Saragossa, the Spanish Podado, a Guerilla Council of War, the Guerilla Taking Leave of his Family, and the Guerilla's Return to his Family,—passed into the English royal collection; but the dramatic Two Spanish Monks of Toledo, also entitled the Confessor Confessing, became the property of the marquis of Lansdowne. On his return to England Wilkie completed the Reception of the King at the Entrance of Holyrood Palace,—a curious example of a union of his earlier and later styles, a " mixture " which was very justly pronounced by Haydon to be "like oil and water." His Preaching of John Knox before the Lords of the Congre-gation had also been begun before he left for abroad ; but it was painted throughout in the later style, and conse-quently presents a more satisfactory unity and harmony of treatment and handling. It was one of the most suc-cessful pictures of the artist's later period.
In the beginning of 1830 Sir Thomas Lawrence died, and Wilkie was appointed to succeed him as painter in ordinary to the king, and in 1836 he received the honour of knighthood. The main figure-pictures which occupied him until the end were Columbus in the Convent at La Rábida, 1835; Napoleon and Pius VII. at Fontainebleau, 1836; Sir David Baird Discovering the Body of Tippoo Sahib, 1838; the Empress Josephine and the Fortune-Teller, 1838; and Queen Victoria Presiding at her First Council, 1838. His time was also much occupied with portraiture, many of his works of this class being royal commissions. His portraits are pictorial and excellent in general distribution, but the faces are frequently wanting in drawing and character. He seldom succeeded in show-ing his sitters at their best, and his female portraits, in particular, rarely gave satisfaction. A favourable example of his cabinet-sized portraits is that of Sir Robert Listón; his likeness of W. Esdaile is an admirable three-quarter length; and one of his finest full-lengths is the gallery portrait of Lord Kellie, now in the town-hall of Cupar.
In the autumn of 1840 Wilkie resolved on a voyage to the East. In a letter to Sir Robert Peel he states that his object was " to judge, not whether I can, but whether


those that are younger, or with far higher attainments and powers, may not in future be required, in the advance and spread of our knowledge, to refer at once to the locali-ties of Scripture events, when the great work is to be essayed of representing Scripture history,"—a sentence which foreshadows the new direction and aims of Mr Hol-man Hunt and other modern realists. Passing through Holland and Germany, he reached Constantinople, where, while detained by the war in Syria, he painted a portrait of the young sultan. He then sailed for Smyrna and travelled to Jerusalem, where he remained for some five busy weeks. The last work of all upon which he was en-gaged was a portrait of Mehemet Ali, done at Alexandria. On his return voyage he suffered from an attack of illness at Malta, and died at sea off Gibraltar on the morning of 1st June 1841. His body was consigned to the deep in the Bay of Gibraltar.
An elaborate Life of Sir David Wilhie, by Allan Cunningham,
containing the painter's journals and his observant and well-con-
sidered "Critical Remarks on Works of Art," was published in
1843. Redgrave's Century of Painters of the English School and
John Burnet's Practical Essays on the Fine Arts may also be referred
to for a critical estimate of his works. A list of the exceptionally
numerous and excellent engravings from his pictures will be found
in the Art Union Journal for January 1840. Apart from his
skill as a painter Wilkie was an admirable etcher. The best of
his plates, such as the Gentleman at his Desk (Laing, VIL), the
Pope examining a Censer (Laing, VIII.), and the Seat of Hands
(Laing, IV.), are worthy to rank with the work of the greatest figure-
etchers. During his lifetime he issued a portfolio of seven plates,
and in 1875 Dr David Laing catalogued and published the complete
series of his etchings and dry-points, supplying the place of a few
copper-plates that had been lost by reproductions, in his Etchings
of David Wilkie and Andrew Qeddes. (J. M. G.)







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