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Sir David Wilkie
Birth Date: 
Birth Place: 
Cults, Fife, Scotland
Death Date: 
Death Place: 
off Malta
Scottish painter Sir David Wilkie was one of the most popular painters in England during the first half of the 19th century. His portraits, genre scenes and history paintings gained him patronage from British royalty and aristocracy. Reproductive prints after his works brought him wide recognition. Wilkie was born in 1785 in Cults, Fife, across the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh. His father was the parish minister. Having shown an interest and talent for drawing, Wilkie entered the Trustees’ Academy in Edinburgh in 1799 to study art under John Graham (1754-1817). He painted portraits and genre scenes; notable among the latter is “Pitlessie Fair” (1804-5. Edinburgh: National Gallery of Scotland.). Wilkie went to London in 1805, an experienced painter who realized he needed more formal training, and enrolled in the Schools of the Royal Academy of Arts. He created “Village Politicians” (Tayside, Scone Palace) in 1806 to satisfy a commission and when exhibited that year at the Royal Academy’s annual exhibition it received extensive praise. That painting led to other commissions for genre scenes from the leading collectors of the day, including the Prince Regent (1762-1830, later King George IV). Wilkie’s genre scenes offered an inventive amalgam of Dutch and English precedent, including the works of such artists as William Hogarth (1697-1764), Adriaen van Ostade (1610-1685) and David Teniers the Younger (1610-1690). A large volume of Wilkie’s drawings have survived, mostly studies for his paintings, although no painting has been found that corresponds to the drawing “The Arrival of the Rich Relation (ca. 1820) in the collection of the Fine Arts Museums. Wilkie began to commission engravings after his paintings in 1809, the year he was elected as an associate member of the Royal Academy; he became a full member in 1811. In 1812 he took the unusual step of mounting his own solo exhibition. His occasional trips to Scotland led to genre scenes in Scottish settings. In addition to genre subjects, there was a continuing demand for portraits by Wilkie. In 1816 the Duke of Wellington (Arthur Wellesley, 1769-1852) asked Wilkie to paint a picture depicting old soldiers chatting outside a public house. The result was Wilkie’s best known work, “Chelsea Pensioners Reading the Gazette of the Battle of Waterloo” (1820-1822, London: Apsley House); when exhibited at the Royal Academy’s 1822 exhibition a rail was installed in front of the painting to protect it. George IV appointed Wilkie as “King’s Limner for Scotland” in 1823, a post that required him to paint a state portrait of the King, which he eventually completed. The deaths of Wilkie’s mother two of his brother in 1824 and 1825 led to a nervous breakdown, rendering him unable to work. The remedy was a long trip to the Continent, which began in 1825. He spent time in Rome, Germany, Madrid and Seville, bringing home sketches and paintings in 1828. King George bought six of the works Wilkie had painted, two done in Italy and four from Spain. He appointed Wilkie “Painter in Ordinary to the King” in 1830, an appointment confirmed by King William IV (1795-1837) later that year and Queen Victoria (1819-1901) in 1837. Wilkie was knighted by William in 1836. Wilkie’s subject matter turned to history paintings, to the disapproval of some critics, who preferred his genre subjects. An idea for a Biblical subject led him to travel to Jerusalem in 1840. The studies he completed on this trip are today some of his best-known works. On his way home in 1841 he fell ill and died while his ship, the SS Oriental, was off Malta. Wilkie was one of the great names of his age, and shortly after his death was included in the mightiest of pantheons. In John Martin’s (1789-1854) enormous painting of the “Last Judgment,” Wilkie was ranked with the likes of Michelangelo (1475-1564), Raphael (1483-1520) and Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). But the greatest tribute by a fellow painter to his memory is J. M. W. Turner’s (1775-1851) masterpiece “Peace, Burial at Sea” (1842, London: Tate Gallery), one of the supreme paintings of the Romantic era. Turner, an admirer and sometime rival of Wilkie, depicted Wilkie’s funeral off Gibraltar aboard the Oriental. (JRG 1985, rev. TNB 8/2015) Selected bibliography: Chiego, William J., ed. Sir David Wilkie of Scotland, 1785-1841. Exhibition catalog. Catalogue by H. A. D Miles and David Blayney Brown. With contributions by Sir Ivor Batchelor, Lindsay Errington, and Arthur S. Marks.. Raleigh: North Carolina Museum of Art, 1987. Miles, Hamish. “Wilkie, Sir David (1785–1841),” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.