Allan Ramsay:
Painter, Essayist and Man of the Enlightenment

Alastair Smart

Publicaton Date
May 1992
Standard Number
Yale University Press
320 pages

Allan Ramsay, court painter to King George III, was one of the major portrait painters of the eighteenth-century British school. Born in Edinburgh, he was also an important figure in the Scottish Enlightenment; his Dialogue on Taste merits an honored place among eighteenth-century belles lettres. This book by the world's foremost authority on Ramsay gives an entirely fresh account of Ramsay's life and sheds new light on his artistic and intellectual development.

A classical scholar and master of several modern languages, Ramsay was unquestionably the most learned and erudite artist of the age. His friends included such celebrated men of letters as David Hume, Adam Smith, Horace Walpole, Samuel Johnson, and James Boswell, and he came to know the French philosophes Voltaire, Diderot, d'Holbach, and Rousseau (whose portrait he painted.) Alastair Smart describes Ramsay's early years, his artistic training in Scotland, England, and Italy, his rise to prominence as the leading portrait painter in England, his two marriages, his travels abroad, and his appointment as painter to the King. He discusses Ramsay's ideas, especially as revealed in the Dialogue on Taste. He analyzes the various phases in Ramsay's development as a painter and explores his relationship to the contemporary painters Hogarth and Highmore and to the younger painters Reynolds and Gainsborough. Smart's extensive discussions of Ramsay's major works are accompanied by numerous reproductions of his paintings, many appearing for the first time.

Smart's biography of a remarkable Enlightenment figure—the fruits of sustained research over forty years—fills a considerable gap in our knowledge of British eighteenth-century art.