Perhaps Scotland’s greatest artist of the nineteenth century, David Wilkie was born on November 18, 1785. He rose to fame painting gentle genre scenes of his native land such as The Blind Fiddler (above, from 1806), which show the influence of the Dutch genre painters Wilkie had seen in reproductions. Wilkie’s life and art changed direction in 1822, when King George IV of England visited Scotland and Wilkie raced to Edinburgh to paint him. After that encounter, Wilkie’s career soared beyond the confines of simple Scottish interiors to the halls of monarchical power.
Wilkie chose the reception of the king at the entrance of Holyrood Palace as the subject for his painting of George IV. A year later, the king named Wilkie Royal Limner for Scotland after the death of Henry Raeburn. Unfortunately, the commemoration of the visit took several years for Wilkie to complete, perhaps a sign of discomfort with his new coziness with power. A similar phenomenon often happened to poets laureate, who felt the pressure to create occasional verse on demand to commemorate events in the life of the king and/or nation, even when the muse wasn’t cooperating. During this time, Wilkie also indulges in historical genre painting, such as Chelsea Pensioners Reading the Waterloo Dispatch (above, from 1822), the visual equivalent of occasional verse.
In 1830, Wilkie became Painter in Ordinary to King William IV after the death of Sir Thomas Lawrence. Knighthood followed six years later. When William IV died in 1837, his 18-year-old daughter, Victoria, assumed the throne and Wilkie was there to paint her portrait (above). Royal portrait commissions took up much of the rest of his life. Sadly, as can be seen in the portrait of Victoria, grand portraiture never really suited Wilkie. After the golden age of British portraiture of Thomas Lawrence, Joshua Reynolds, and others, Wilkie’s place of prominence marks in a small way the decline of the genre in English painting. The man who painted simple scenes of simple folk enjoying themselves with homemade entertainment could never capture the essence of the royal elite preening for posterity.