This picture is a meeting of great minds. Allan Ramsay (1713-1784) was the greatest Scottish painter of his day, one of the greatest Scottish artists ever. He was famed for his clear-sighted, intimate, beautiful portraits of men and women of the day, from grand depictions of senior politicians and British royalty to astonishingly sensitive portraits of the women in his life.
The subject of this 1766 portrait was his friend David Hume (1711-1776), the sceptical and atheist philosopher, who taught that the only thing we could trust was the evidence of our senses, and beyond that we could be certain of nothing, not even that the sun will rise tomorrow. He was also a rich man thanks to his best-selling History of England (1754–1761) and a central figure of Scottish intellectual life in the mid 18th century, at the heart of the Scottish Enlightenment, the period when Scottish intellectuals made huge leaps in philosophy and helped found disciplines as diverse as economics and geology.
Hume sits in fine robes, showing his social status and Ramsay’s skillful depiction of gold and fabric. He looks at us as an equal, straight out, unobscured by props except the fine books he casually rests his arm upon. Duncan Macmillan notes the intimacy of his portraits: the sitter faces us on the same level, and even the grandest political figures aren’t on steps or pedestals. Hume’s large bulk is accurately depicted, and Ramsay does his customary trick of presenting an image at once seeming true to life and handsome. Hume’s expression is slightly enigmatic, his mouth perhaps about to open to speak or to break into a smile. It can be compared to Ramsay’s rather furtive portrait of the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (also 1766).
A beam of light hits the philosopher’s face from above and to the side; he is caught in the moment by the beam of light which illuminates and picks him out like the rays of light which commonly fall on Jesus. There is something both monarchic and godly about the image. Ramsay resembles Vermeer and Velasquez in his ability to capture light. Like them he makes light seem a physical presence in his painting: a gauzy light falls on Hume, like a mist which settles on the figure interposing itself but at the same time being the only thing to allow us access to the physical reality of the artist. This recalls the great advances in optics made by Scots, such as Sir David Brewster pioneer of crystallography, inventor of the kaleidoscope, and friend of pioneering photographer John Adamson.
Ramsay was born in Edinburgh in 1713, a near-contemporary of Hume. Ramsay’s father was the famous poet Allan Ramsay (1684–1758), immortalised in his nightcap by a statue in Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens. Son followed into the leading Scottish intellectual circles; in 1729 when he was about 16, young Allan was a signatory of the document establishing the Academy of St Luke’s, Scotland’s first painting academy. He attended Edinburgh high school from 1726 and from 1732 to 1733 studied in London at St Martin’s Lane Academy and with Swedish-born portraitist Hans Hysing who painted several members of the British royal family. In 1736 with the support of wealthy patrons Ramsay went to Italy and studied in Rome both under Francesco Fernandi (known as Imperiali) and at the French Academy and in Naples with Francesco Solimena; this gave him a good insight into the Italian late Baroque.
In 1738 Ramsay returned to Britain, setting up practice in London. In the 1740s and 1750s he painted many greats in both Edinburgh and London. His assistants included Alexander Nasmyth, a pioneer of Scottish landscape painting. He toured Europe in 1750s picking up rococo influence, resulting in softer less bombastic paintings. In 1754 he became friends with Hume when they were both in Edinburgh. In 1757 Ramsay was commissioned to paint the Prince of Wales, later George III, and he became the King’s official painter on his accession to the throne. He continued his career through the 1770s, but after 1780 things went less well: he injured his arm, which made it harder for him to paint, and his second wife Margaret Lindsay died in 1782. Ramsay retired to Italy, and died in 1784 in Dover.
Ramsay was also a writer, and sets out his ideas on art in A Dialogue on Taste (1762). What is important in art is truth, not beauty; the latter is only a subjective property and perceived differently by everyone’s individual taste. Rejecting the idea that taste should be determined by the preferences of the majority, Ramsay says true bad taste lies in art which “instead of instruction, conveys no ideas or, what is worse, false ideas”. For Ramsay, the greatest art is universal, speaking even to the uneducated: “when it arrives at a supreme degree of excellence it is adapted to the lowest class”.
Good art depends on drawing “from the pure fountain of nature”, not in imitating other artists. In poetry he rejects the wit of Shakespeare’s sonnets and the fantastic material of Milton and Spenser. In art he takes issue with Hogarth and his pursuit of beauty: Hogarth claimed that beauty was objective and some things such as toads have nothing beautiful about them, but Ramsay suggests that a male toad would see beauty in a girl toad. Slavish imitation of other artists has led to an anodyne, inoffensive standard of beauty which offends nobody. Ramsay was not primarily an intellectual painter, but his writings showed both his inquiring mind and the part he played in debates about the nature of art with leading figures like Hogarth.
Painting at a time when Scotland was an intellectual centre not just of Britain but of Europe, Ramsay’s portrait of Hume shows the painter’s powers of observation and inquiry: his extraordinary skill with light and ability to capture the truth of his sitters’ faces. But it also salutes a friendship at the heart of the Scottish Enlightenment, showing the bond between the greatest Scottish painter of the time and the greatest philosopher, and the remarkable fact that Ramsay could be painter to the King of Britain yet friends with a man who was tried for heresy (and acquitted). It is surely not a coincidence that the flourishing of Scottish painting that began with Ramsay was linked with the flourishing of Scottish intellectual life.