Ramsay manifested an aptitude for art from an early period, and at the age of twenty we find him in London studying under the Swedish painter Hans Huyssing, and at the St Martin's Lane Academy; and in 1736 he left for Rome, where he worked for three years under Solimena and Imperiali (Fernandi). On his return he settled in Edinburgh; and, having attracted attention by his head of Forbes of Culloden and his full-length of the duke of Argyll, he removed to London, where he was patronized by the duke of Bridgewater. His pleasant manners and varied culture, not less than his artistic skill, contributed to render him popular.
In 1767 he was appointed to succeed Shakelton as principal painter to the king; and so fully employed was he on the royal portraits which the king was in the habit of presenting to ambassadors and colonial governors, that he was forced to take advantage of the services of a host of assistants--of whom David Martin and Philip Reinagle are the best known. His life in London was varied by frequent visits to Italy, where he occupied himself more in literary and antiquarian research than with art. But this prosperous career came to an end, his health being shattered by an accidental dislocation of the right arm. With unflinching pertinacity he struggled till he had completed a likeness of the king upon which he was engaged at the time, and then started for his beloved Italy, leaving behind him a series of fifty royal portraits to be completed by his assistant Reinagle. For several years he lingered in the south, his constitution finally broken. He died at Dover on the 10th of August 1784.
Among his most satisfactory productions are some of his earlier ones, such as the full-length of the duke of Argyll, and the numerous bust-portraits of Scottish gentlemen. and their ladies which he executed before settling in London. They are full of both grace and individuality; the features show excellent draughtsmanship; and the flesh-painting is firm and sound in method, though frequently tending a little to hardness and opacity. His full-length of Lady Mary Coke is remarkable for the skill and delicacy with which the white satin drapery is managed; while in the portrait of his brown-eyed wife, the eldest daughter of Sir Alexander Lindsay of Evelick, in the Scottish National Gallery, we have a sweetness and tenderness which shows the painter at his highest. This last-named work shows the influence of French art, an influence which helped greatly to form the practice of Ramsay, and which is even more clearly visible in. the large collection of his sketches in the possession of the Royal Scottish Academy and the Board of Trustees, Edinburgh.
This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.