Raeburn was born at Stockbridge, near Edinburgh, on 4 March 1756, the younger of the two sons of Robert Raeburn and Ann Elder. He was educated at George Heriot's Hospital, Edinburgh, and at the age of sixteen was apprenticed to the goldsmith James Gilliband. He met David Deuchar, a seal engraver and etcher, who encouraged his talent for drawing and of whom he painted a miniature (his earliest known work); he also met David Martin, the first Scot to make a living from portraiture in his native Edinburgh, who lent him paintings to copy. He never entered Martin's studio or attended an academy, and he was largely self-taught, a circumstance that accounts for his highly personal technique. His early work seems to have been entirely in the field of miniature painting. In about 1780 he married Ann Leslie; they had two sons. Ann was a widow some twelve years older than he, with a comfortable income and property in Stockbridge; he thus became a painter of independent means.
In 1784 Raeburn spent two months in Reynolds' studio on his way south to travel abroad. He was away for three years, of which time little is known, although perhaps he traveled in Italy. His earliest dated work, a miniature of the second Earl Spencer, was executed in Rome in 1786. Although influenced by the portrait patterns of Raphael and Velázquez, his period of study abroad seems to have had little other effect on his subsequent style; he was chiefly interested in sculpture, and thought of becoming a sculptor.
In 1786 Raeburn settled in Edinburgh New Town to practice as a portrait painter, achieving an instant success; his repertory of poses was influenced by those of Ramsay, Reynolds, and Romney. He worked first on George Street, then, after 1798, in a new studio that he had built for himself on York Place; Martin had died in 1797, and from now on Raeburn was undisputed as the first portrait painter in Edinburgh.
Raeburn's contacts with London were at first limited; after exhibiting there in 1792 he did not do so again (save for single portraits in 1798, 1799, and 1802) until 1810, when--perhaps a result of financial straits following the failure of his son's business in 1808--he considered moving south to fill the void left by the death of John Hoppner. Although, after a visit in which he was received with great respect, he rejected the idea of establishing himself in the sophisticated society of the metropolis, he now began to exhibit regularly at the Royal Academy, becoming an Associate in 1812 and a full Academician in 1815.
Raeburn was knighted during George IV's visit to Scotland in 1822 and subsequently appointed King's Limner and Painter for Scotland. He was popular in Edinburgh society, now increasingly vigorous and intellectual in outlook, and later among his fellow artists, with whom earlier he had associated little. He was active in encouraging young painters, offered the use of his own showrooms in York Place for annual exhibitions, and helped to form a Royal Scottish Academy (founded in 1826). He died in Edinburgh on 8 July 1823.
[Hayes, John. British Paintings of the Sixteenth through Nineteenth Centuries. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1992: 187-188.]
Cunningham, Allan. The Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. 6 vols. London, 1829-1833. Also 2d ed. London, 1837: 5:204-241.
Greig, James. Sir Henry Raeburn, R.A.: His Life and Works. London, 1911.
Baxandall, David. Raeburn. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, 1956.
Harris, Rose. Sir Henry Raeburn. The Master Series, no. 46. Paulton, near Bristol, 1966.
Irwin, David, and Francina Irwin. Scottish Painters at Home and Abroad 1700-1900. London, 1975: 146-164.
Thomson, Duncan. In The Treasures of Fyvie. Exh. cat. Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, 1985: 54-61.
Macmillan, Duncan. Painting in Scotland: The Golden Age. Exh. cat. Talbot Rice Art Centre, University of Edinburgh; Tate Gallery, London. Oxford, 1986: 74-136.
Hayes, John. British Paintings of the Sixteenth through Nineteenth Centuries. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1992: 187-188.