Wheatley was born in London in 1747, the son of a master tailor in Covent Garden. First placed under Daniel Fournier, a neighbor who was a drawing master, he was subsequently trained at the drawing school run by William Shipley, the founder of the (Royal) Society of Arts. He was a pupil of an unidentified Mr. Wilson, perhaps Benjamin Wilson, when, in 1762, he won the Society's premium for a drawing of the human figure. In 1763 he won a similar prize and is recorded as traveling abroad, perhaps in France and the Low Countries. In 1766 he won the Society's second prize for a landscape drawn from nature. In 1769 he entered the Royal Academy Schools as one of its first students. In 1770 he was elected a member of the Society of Artists, where he had first exhibited in 1765, becoming a director in 1774. He assisted John Hamilton Mortimer on the decoration of the ceiling of the saloon at Brocket Hall, Hertfordshire, between 1771 and 1773, and later in the decade went on sketching tours, for example to Devonshire in 1778.
Wheatley lived extravagantly and ran into debt; in 1779, with the aid of a loan from Benjamin West which he never repaid, he went to Dublin with the wife of a fellow artist, J. A. Gresse, whom he passed off as his own. In 1783 he returned to England. Finding it difficult to reestablish himself, he applied the following year to the East India Company to practice as a portrait painter in India, but he did not go. He worked more and more for the print sellers, beginning his long association with John Boydell, for whose Shakespeare Gallery he later painted thirteen canvases. Sometime before 1788 he married Clara Maria Leigh, daughter of a proctor in Doctors' Commons, St. Paul's Churchyard, with whom he had four children.
During the first half of his career Wheatley painted small-scale portraits in which figures--the ladies with gaily colored apparel--were informally posed and silhouetted against darker landscape backgrounds. He also produced conversation pieces and landscapes, both in oil and watercolor, in which everyday rustic incidents were featured. After his return to London in 1783, Wheatley concentrated on his work for which he is best known, sentimental scenes inspired by Greuze and the cult of sensibilité, mostly intended for engraving and for distribution on the French as well as the English market. He painted the celebrated canvas of John Howard visiting and relieving the miseries of a prison, bourgeois moralities, scenes from modern literature, and fancy pictures--genre pictures in which sentiment was combined with domestic or rustic realism.
Wheatley was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1790 and became a full Academician in 1791. Though he was popular and hard working, what little is known of Wheatley's prices does not suggest that he was normally well paid, and by 1793 he was again seriously in debt. For the last seven years of his life he was not only in constant financial difficulties but severely crippled by gout, the result of youthful dissipation. He died in London on 28 June 1801.
[Hayes, John. British Paintings of the Sixteenth through Nineteenth Centuries. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1992: 321-322.]
Roberts, William. F. Wheatley, R.A.. London, 1910.
Webster, Mary. Francis Wheatley. London, 1970.
Hayes, John. British Paintings of the Sixteenth through Nineteenth Centuries. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1992: 321-322.