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Sir David Wilkie

Scottish, 1785 - 1841

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Wilkie was born at Cults, in Fifeshire, on 18 November 1785, the third son of the Reverend David Wilkie and his third wife, Isabella Lister. He was educated at local schools in Pitlessie, Kettle, and Cupar until the age of fourteen. Ambitious to become a painter, he was sent in 1799 to the Trustee's Academy in Edinburgh, where he studied at the separate Drawing Academy newly founded by the history painter John Graham; among his fellow students was John Burnet, later the successful engraver of his works. After a few months painting portraits in Fifeshire and at Aberdeen, Wilkie moved in 1805 to London, where he entered the Royal Academy Schools and attended Charles Bell's lectures on anatomy.

Wilkie achieved an immediate public and critical success in 1806 with his first exhibit at the Royal Academy, and by 1809, his style exactly suiting the contemporary taste for highly finished Dutch cabinet pictures, he claimed to have at least forty works bespoke. He gave careful attention throughout his career to popularizing his work through engravings, from which he made a considerable profit. Wilkie was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1809, and became a full Academician in 1811. Blind Man's Bluff marked the beginning of a lifelong friendship with the prince regent, whose favorite painter he became.

Wilkie traveled to Paris in 1814, in the company of Benjamin Robert Haydon, to see the art treasures pillaged by Napoleon, and was especially impressed by Rubens' Marie de Médicis series at the Luxembourg. In 1816 he journeyed to the Low Countries; in 1817 he was in Scotland to study once again the life and manners of the common people, and his name was identified with the anecdotal rustic genre scenes he painted from this knowledge. He was also a skilled portraitist on a small scale. Wilkie was in Scotland again for George IV's visit to Edinburgh in 1822, and the following year was appointed King's Limner for Scotland.

Wilkie, a perfectionist, was prone to depression and mental fatigue; following a succession of bereavements and seriously strained by overwork, he suffered a severe nervous breakdown in 1825. He went to Italy in search of health, remaining there and not resuming painting until the summer of 1827, when he traveled first to Switzerland and then to Spain; he was the first major British artist ever to visit Madrid. He returned to London in 1828, after three years abroad; liberal patronage from George IV quickly reestablished his reputation. In 1830 he succeeded Lawrence as Principal Painter to the King, a post which deflected him reluctantly into royal portraiture when his ambition was increasingly toward history painting; in 1836 he was knighted.

Wilkie remained unmarried and, though much loved by his fellow artists and patrons, never lost his awkwardness and strong Scottish accent. In 1840 he decided to visit the Holy Land to study authentic backgrounds for religious works he planned; he traveled through Holland and Germany to Constantinople, arriving in Jerusalem in February 1841. He died on board ship near Gibraltar on 1 June 1841 on his way home, and was buried at sea, an event commemorated in one of Turner's masterpieces, Burial at Sea.

[Hayes, John. British Paintings of the Sixteenth through Nineteenth Centuries. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1992: 329-330.]

Artist Bibliography

Cunningham, Allan. The Life of Sir David Wilkie. 3 vols. London, 1843.
Woodward, John. Sir David Wilkie R.A.. Exh. cat. Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1958.
Irwin, David and Francina Irwin. Scottish Painters at Home and Abroad 1700-1900. London, 1975: 165-185.
Macmillan, Duncan. Painting in Scotland: The Golden Age. Exh. cat. Talbot Rice Art Centre, University of Edinburgh; Tate Gallery, London. Oxford, 1986: 157-185.
Chiego, William J., H.A.D. Miles, and David Blayney Brown. Sir David Wilkie of Scotland (1785-1841). Exh. cat. North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh; Yale Center for British Art, New Haven. Raleigh, 1987.
Hayes, John. British Paintings of the Sixteenth through Nineteenth Centuries. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1992: 329-332.

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