Sir   David   Wilkie,   R.A.

Cults, in Fifeshire, Scotland, 18 November 1785 - 1 June 1841, at sea near Malta






British painter, a minister's son, studied painting in Edinburgh, despite his parents' misgivings about the occupation. His ambition led him to London, where he entered the Royal Academy schools. In 1806, he made his name with a modern genre painting, beginning a life of much-admired paintings of everyday scenes. In 1822, when exhibiting a wildly popular work, the Royal Academy took the unprecedented step of erecting barriers around it.

Wilkie's style evolved primarily due to study trips abroad. In 1814, and 1821, he visited Paris, Belgium, and The Netherlands, where he studied art by Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, Titian, and Peter Paul Rubens. As a result, he expressed emotions more sharply, deepened his shadows, and made his color stronger and his paint smoother. To recuperate from a nervous breakdown after overwork and the deaths of his mother and two brothers, Wilkie spent the mid-1820s in Italy, Austria, Germany, and Spain. He then adopted a broader style and began working on history paintings, diminishing his popularity among both public and critics. After visiting the Holy Land to research religious paintings, he died and was buried at sea.



Sir David Wilkie was born at Cults, in Fifeshire, on November 18, 1785. His father, the Rev. David Wilkie, was the minister of the parish, and his mother, Isabella Lister, the daughter of a farmer at Pitlessie. The Wilkie family came originally from Midlothian, where, at Ratho Byres, a small property had been in their possession for some four centuries. Isabella Lister was the minister's third wife, and David her third son. As soon as he could crawl he began to evince a bent towards art. He could draw after a fashion before he could read or even talk distinctly. At his first school, the village school of Pitlessie, he used to make portraits of his companions, for which they had to pay with marbles, pencils, etc.



At the age of fourteen he was sent to Edinburgh, to the Trustees' Academy, into which at first he had some difficulty in winning admission. Before the end of his course, however, he won a prize of ten pounds for a sketch of 'Diana and Calisto.' In 1804, he returned to Cults, and began work upon his 'Pitlessie Fair,' for which he found plenty of material among the natives of the district. It is an extraordinary production for a lad of eighteen. In this same year Wilkie painted many portraits, the proceeds of which enabled him to make his way to London.

He arrived in May, 1805, took lodgings at 8, Norton Street, Portland Road, and a few months afterwards he was at work in the schools of the Royal Academy. Before he left Scotland he had painted a small picture called 'The Village Recruit.' This and a few studies brought in the funds on which he lived during his first year in London. Stodart, the pianoforte-maker, who was married to a connection of the Wilkies, introduced the young painter to Lord Mansfield. At this time -- it was in the last month of 1805 -- Wilkie had finished the sketch for 'Village Politicians,' which Lord Mansfield saw, and apparently said enough about it to give him, in his own opinion, a right to the refusal of the finished picture, and that at what was even then the absurd price of fifteen guineas. The picture went to the Academy of 1806, where it had an extraordinary success, and after some dispute, entered Lord Mansfield's collection at the price of thirty guineas. The success of 'Village Politicians ' brought Wilkie commissions from Sir George Beaumont and Lord Mulgrave. For the former he painted 'The Blind Fiddler,' exhibited in 1807; for the latter the 'Rent Day.' Lord Mulgrave sent him a cheque for it for three times the agreed price, and advised him to be a little bolder in his demands for the future.

The 'Rent Day' was exhibited in 1809. After Lord Mulgrave's death it was offered at Christie's, but bought in for 750 guineas, and afterwards sold for £2000. About this time (1807) the Duke of Gloucester gave Wilkie a commission, through Sir Francis Bourgeois, which resulted in the 'Card Players,' for which H.R.H., like Lord Mulgrave, paid treble the price asked. The picture was afterwards sold to Mr. Bredel by the Duchess for 500 guineas. 'Card Players' was exhibited in 1808; in 1809, 'A Sick Lady,' now in the collection of Lord Lansdowne, was at the Academy, and in the same year the painter was elected an Associate of that society.

It was in 1810, that the painful incident, to him, of his abstention from exhibition in obedience to the advice of Borne of his colleagues took place, and that he withdrew his 'Man with the Girl's Cap' -- one of the very finest, in quality, of all his works -- in apprehension lest it might be eclipsed by the work of Edward Bird. By this, perhaps, he was mainly induced to have the separate show of his own works, which took place in the summer of 1811. In this same year he was elected a full Academician, in succession to Sir F. Bourgeois. His chief productions in the year between his promotion to the R.A.-ship and the peace of 1814, were 'The Village Festival,' 'Blindman's Buff,' and 'Duncan Gray.'

In 1814, he and Haydon went together to Paris, a memorable journey, which is described to perfection in Haydon's wonderful diary. On his return Wilkie set to work on his 'Distraining for Rent,' which was bought by the Directors of the British Institution. In the autumn of the same year he made a tour in the Netherlands, in company with the engraver Raimbach, returning by the way of Calais, where, like Hogarth, he was arrested for sketching the famous gate.

In 1817, he made a journey in Scotland, covering much the same ground as a modern tourist, and finishing with a visit to Abbotsford, where he painted Scott and his family in the guise of peasants. On his return to London he painted 'The Penny Wedding' for the Prince Regent, the 'Reading of a Will' for the King of Bavaria, and the 'Chelsea Pensioners and the Waterloo Gazette' for the Duke of Wellington. In 1822, he was back in Scotland, to be present at the famous visit of George IV., and again in 1824; and then, in 1825, came the failure of health which drove him to seek change of scene, and led to a complete change in his art. In 1812, Wilkie's father had died, and he had summoned his mother and sister Helen from Scotland to share his home, which was henceforth in Phillimore Place, Kensington. In 1824, on the day before his return from Scotland, his mother had died, and her death, no doubt, was one cause of his illness.

His foreign route lay through Paris, Milan, Genoa, Pisa, Florence, Rome, Naples, Bologna, Parma, Venice, Innspruck, Munich, Dresden, Toeplitz, Prague, and Vienna, and then by Trieste back to Italy and Rome. From Italy, he went to Switzerland and then to Spain, where the example of Velazquez, Murillo, and the crowd of unknown Spaniards of lesser mark revolutionized his style. From Spain he sent several pictures home to the Academy, and in 1828, he returned to England. From this time forward he painted openly, loosely, with little care for detail, and with less for local and individual truth. Even in his finest works there are hints of the mannerist, and in the weakly condition in which his last sixteen years were passed, he seems to have had no strength to shake off the fault. Two of the best pictures of this time are 'Napoleon and Pius VII., and 'The Queen's First Council,' but it is to the reflected glory of the early pictures that most of their assthetic interest is due.

On the death of Sir Thomas Lawrence, in 1830, Wilkie was appointed Painter in Ordinary to the King, and was brought forward for the Presidency of the Academy. For this, however, he only received two votes, those of Collins and Leslie. Between 1830 and 1840 Wilkie painted many pictures, among them the two above-named, and the 'First Earning,' in the National Gallery. In 1840, he began that pilgrimage to the East, from which he was never to return.

Leaving London in August, with Mr. William Woodburn, he made his way, by the Rhine and Danube, to Constantinople, where he painted the Sultan's portrait, and where he was the guest of Sir Moses Montefiore. From Constantinople he made his way by Smyrna, Rhodes, and Beyrout to Jerusalem. From Jerusalem he turned to come home by way of Alexandria, Malta, and Gibraltar. After the steamer left Malta he wa« taken suddenly ill, and on the forenoon of June 1, 1841, he died. He was buried at sea the same evening, within sight of Gibraltar.

Bryan's Dictionary of Painters and Engravers, Vol. V., 1905



Sir David Wilkie, R. A. Born in Fifeshire (1785-1841). Educated at the Trustees Academy in Edinburgh, and in the Royal Academy, London. He exhibited at the Royal Academy, London, for the first time, in 1806, "The Village Politician," a work which at once established his reputation. Works of note:


"The Blind Fiddler" "The Card-Players" "Rent-Day" "Jew's-Harp" "Cut Finger" "Village Festival"
"Rabbit on the Wall" "Penny Wedding" "Whisky Still" "Reading of the Will" "Parish Beadle" "Cotter's Saturday Night"

Many of which are familiar to both hemispheres through the medium of engraving. He was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1809, and Academician in 1811. He went to the Continent in 1825, spending three years there. Was made Painter in Ordinary to George IV. in 1830, and was knighted in 1836. He was also a member of the Royal Scottish Academy, and the King's Limner for Scotland. Many of his works are in the National Gallery, London. He stood in the first rank of his profession. He died on a vessel off Gibraltar and was buried at sea.

Artists of the Nineteenth Century and their Works, by Clara Erskine Clement and Laurence Hutton, 1879.


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