Scotland and the Origins of Modern Art

Scotland and the Origins of Modern Art

Duncan Macmillan

Lund Humphries

In this richly illustrated, intuitive and scholarly survey of the history of Scottish and European art, the key premise is the ‘creative exchange between art, philosophy and literature during the Enlightenment; Modern art evolved as a search for a way to describe the world as we experience it.’ – Duncan Macmillan from the Introduction.

Divided into four parts – Moral Sense and the New Primitive, Common Sense, Paris and Scotland, twelve chapters explore the role of influential thinkers, writers and artists, the cultural links between Scotland and France and their legacy through the 20th century. 

Most significantly, Allan Ramsay was a close friend of David Hume who together founded the Select Society, introducing the artist to Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson and other members of the Enlightenment circle. The Age of Reason moved away from religion to examine the wider social picture across art, politics, science, medicine and philosophy.  

Ramsay’s fine portraiture of men and women denote immense skill and intuition– akin to the manner of French painter, Louis Tocqué: ‘an image in which the external appearance of a person expressed their inner character… to show the complex exchange between the body and the mind.’  In his portrait of Margaret Lindsay, (1758-60) Allan Ramsay captures his wife’s youthful, pink-blushed face, tactile fabrics, lace shawl and satin gown. Arranging the flowers, she turns to gaze directly at her husband – and the viewer. As Macmillan reveals, like Hume, Ramsay also studied human nature to depict personality and emotional feeling – ‘his portraits are the epitome of this, of the imagination and… among the supreme achievements of British art’. 

Allan Ramsay, 'Margaret Lindsay, Mrs Allan Ramsay', oil on canvas (National Galleries of Scotland)
Allan Ramsay, ‘Margaret Lindsay, Mrs Allan Ramsay’, oil on canvas (National Galleries of Scotland)

Alexander Runciman was born in Edinburgh in 1736 and trained at the Foulis Academy, Glasgow and then in Rome as part of a group of Scottish and international artists, specialising in religious, literary and historical subjects. With a modernist Romantic manner, The Origin of Painting (1771-1773) features Cupid and his lover, whose distinctive profile is borrowed from an ancient Greek vase with theatrical imagination. 

His brother John died young of TB in Naples the year after he painted this striking Self-Portrait, (1767), in a jaunty hat and thoughtful mood ‘hand to chin’, pondering the figure of ‘Day’ by Michelangelo, as illustrated in the background. 

John Runicman, 'Self Portrait', oil on canvas (National Galleries of Scotland)
John Runciman, ‘Self Portrait’, oil on canvas (National Galleries of Scotland)

There is a fascinating debate on the philosophical theories of Thomas Reid (1710-1796) who studied the difference between sensation and perception, observing the passing of time, whether the sun is in the east or south, or the day is clear or cloudy. This is key to how an artist should perceive nature, giving a forward-thinking Impressionistic example of an apple tree in blossom: ‘the colours of leaves, petals, branches and sky are gradually diluted into each other.’

As an intellectual, Reid’s understanding of the language of art, as Macmillan comments, ‘to be both natural and expressive was an ambition that helped shape modern art.’ 

Henry Raeburn’s portrait of Thomas Reid (1796) is most revealing, as he sits in a dark shadow, wearing a red velvet turban with an austere expression which was said to capture his serious, dignified manner.  

Henry Raeburn, 'Thomas Reid (1710-1796), Professor of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow University' The National Trust for Scotland, (Fyvie Castle)
Henry Raeburn, ‘Thomas Reid (1710-1796), Professor of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow University’ (The National Trust for Scotland, Fyvie Castle)

A most perceptive and intimate portrait by Raeburn is of General Francis Dundas and his wife, Eliza Cumming, (1812) as they engage in a game of chess. Eliza sits back, arms folded, looking bemused as she watches her husband, contemplating his next move very seriously.  This illustrates again Raeburn’s ‘abbreviated style and his command of expression.’ 

Henry Raeburn, 'General Francis Dundas and his wife, Eliza Cumming', oil on canvas (Arniston House Collection)
Henry Raeburn, ‘General Francis Dundas and his wife, Eliza Cumming’, oil on canvas (Arniston House Collection)

Research work combining medicine and visual arts by brothers John and Charles Bell was published as Essays on the Anatomy of Expression in Painting, which was of great interest to the artist, David Wilkie. Inspired by the poetry of Robert Burns, his scenes depicted country fairs, dancing and musicians, full of movement and energy, observing facial expression and body language. (The Penny Wedding, 1818). As the son of a church minister, Wilkie also portrayed the simple, ordinary life of a family at home. 

David Wilkie, 'The Penny Wedding', oil on panel (Royal Collection Trust)
David Wilkie, ‘The Penny Wedding’, oil on panel (Royal Collection Trust)

Chapter Nine, New Ideas from Scotland, shows how Reid’s principles on Common Sense were studied in France. At the Sorbonne, Victor Cousin discussed artistic perception in his lectures on La Philosophie Ecossaise, which was much appreciated by Eugene Delacroix: ‘when we look at nature, our imagination constructs a picture (and) we do not see the blades of grass in a landscape.’  

Scottish literature was also highly regarded in France, where Sir Walter Scott sold 1,400,000 copies of his novels in 1832, the historical tales inspiring writers and artists: Pichot, Nodier, Delacroix, Vernet and Bonington. French Narrative painting demonstrated a popularity of Scott’s subjects and historical scenes, ‘art in the common world of ordinary experience’.  Horace Vernet certainly captures Scott’s romanticised view of Scotland in his portrait of Allan M’Aulay, (1823), as Macmillan comments, has echoes of Raeburn.  

Horace Vernet, 'Allan M'Aulay', oil on canvas, (Wallace Collection, London)
Horace Vernet, ‘Allan M’Aulay’, oil on canvas, (Wallace Collection, London)

David Wilkie is sure to have inspired the figurative paintings of Gustave Courbet – L’Aprèsdînée à Ornan, featuring a homely setting with lively musical entertainment after dinner.  Thus, it can be seen that the respective work of Reid, Bell, Scott and Wilkie ‘contributed to the changes in the focus of painting in France… which since then, has shaped modern art.’

The move towards Impressionism directly links to Reid’s empirical theory on visual perception. The imaginative focus on bold colour by Van Gogh, Matisse, Cezanne and Gauguin et al., developed into an art of pure expression. In his landscapes and water lilies Monet’s evocation of shimmering, transient light conveyed the raw sensation of what he has seen. Just like the clouds of smoke in the Gare St. Lazare (1877)

Claude Monet, 'Gare St. Lazare', oil on canvas, (Musee d'Orsay, Paris)
Claude Monet, ‘Gare St. Lazare’, oil on canvas, (Musee d’Orsay, Paris)

In Scotland, a similar Impressionistic approach is evident in the evocative seascapes by William McTaggart – the wild waves in The Storm (1890) and hazy light in The Paps of Jura (1902). As Macmillan comments, ‘McTaggart’s vision is really his own and is remarkably modern.’

William McTaggart, 'The Storm', oil on canvas (National Galleries of Scotland)
William McTaggart, ‘The Storm’, oil on canvas (National Galleries of Scotland)

One of the four pioneering Scottish Colourists, J D Fergusson trained and later lived much of his life in Paris; through his partner, Margaret Morris, he shared her passion for modern dance. With a similar sense of movement as Matisse and Gauguin, his figurative paintings express such energy and freedom as illustrated in Les Eus, (The Happy Ones,1912).   

J D Fergusson, 'Les Eus' oil on canvas (Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow)
J D Fergusson, ‘Les Eus’ oil on canvas (Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow)

As a member of Salon d’Automne, Fergusson was the British artist most closely involved in the artistic revolution growing in Paris at the turn of the 20th century. 

As Duncan Macmillan concludes: ‘It is fitting that he should have been there, for some of the roots in that revolution lay in the Scottish tradition of art and ideas that stemmed from the Enlightenment’. 

With thanks to Vivien Devlin for this review.

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