He was born at Stockbridge, a suburb of Edinburgh, the son of a manufacturer. Orphaned, he was placed in Heriot's Hospital, where he received an education, and at the age of fifteen was apprenticed to a goldsmith. Here he had some opportunity to practise a kind of art; various pieces of jewellery, mourning rings and the like, adorned with minute drawings on ivory by his hand, still exist. Soon he took to the production of carefully finished miniatures; meeting with success and patronage, he extended his practice to oil-painting, at which he was self-taught. The goldsmith watched the progress of his pupil with interest, and introduced him to David Martin, who bad been the favourite assistant of Allan Ramsay junior, and was now the leading portrait-painter in Edinburgh. Raeburn was especially aided by the loan of portraits to copy. Soon her had gained sufficient skill to make him decide to devote himself exclusively to painting.
In his early twenties, he was asked to paint the portrait of a young lady whom he had previously observed and admired when he was sketching from nature in the fields. She was the daughter of Peter Edgar of Bridgelands ,and widow of Count Leslie. Fascinated by the handsome and intellectual young artist, she became his wife within a month, bringing him an ample fortune. The acquisition of wealth did not affect his enthusiasm or his industry, but spurred him on to acquire a thorough knowledge of his craft. It was usual for artists to visit Italy, and Raeburn set off with his wife. In London he was kindly received by Sir Joshua Reynolds, who advised him on what to study in Rome, especially recommending the works of Michelangelo. Raeburn carried with him to Italy many valuable introductions from the president of the Royal Academy. In Rome he met Gavin Hamilton, Pompeo Girolamo Batoni and Byers -- whose advice proved particularly useful, especially the recommendation that "he should never copy an object from memory, but, from the principal figure to the minutest accessory, have it placed before him." After two years of study in Italy he returned to Edinburgh in 1787, and began a successful career as a portrait-painter. In that year he executed an seated portrait of the second Lord President Dundas.
Examples of his earlier portraiture include a bust of Mrs Johnstone of Baldovie and a three-quarter-length of Dr James Hutton, works which, if somewhat timid and tentative in handling and not as confident as his later work, nevertheless have delicacy and character. The portraits of John Clerk, Lord Eldin, and of Principal Hill of St Andrews belong to a later period. Raeburn was fortunate in the time in which he practised portraiture. Sir Walter Scott, Hugh Blair, Henry Mackenzie, Woodhouselee, Robertson, John Home, Robert Fergusson, and Dugald Stewart were resident in Edinburgh, and they were all painted by Raeburn. Mature works include his own portrait and that of the Rev. Sir Henry Moncrieff Wellwood, the bust of Dr Wardrop of Torbane Hill, the two full-lengths of Adam Rolland of Gask, the remarkable paintings of Lord Newton and Dr Alexander Adam in the National Gallery of Scotland, and that of William Macdonald of St Martin's. It was commonly believed that Raeburn was less successful in painting female portraits, but the exquisite full-length of his wife, the smaller likeness of Mrs R. Scott Moncrieff in the Scottish National Gallery, and that of Mrs Robert Bell, and others, argue against this. Raeburn spent his life in Edinburgh, rarely visiting London, and then only for brief periods, thus preserving his individuality. Although he, personally, may have lost advantages resulting from closer association with the leaders of English art, and from contact with a wider public, Scottish art gained much from his disinclination to leave his native land. He became the acknowledged chief of the school which was growing up in Scotland during the earlier years of the 19th century, and his example and influence at a critical period were of major importance. So varied were his other interests that sitters used to say of him, "You would never take him for a painter till he seizes the brush and palette." In 1812 he was elected president of the Society of Artists in Edinburgh, in 1814 associate, and in the following year full member of the Royal Academy. In 1822 he was knighted by George IV and appointed His Majesty's limner for Scotland. He died at Edinburgh.
Raeburn had all the essential qualities of a popular and successful portrait-painter. He was able to produce a telling and forcible likeness; his work is distinguished by breadth of effect, by force of handling, and by execution of the swiftest and most resolute sort. David Wilkie recorded that, while travelling in Spain and studying the works of Velazquez, the brush-work reminded him constantly of the "square touch" of Raeburn. It is in tone that Raeburn is often found lacking, possibly because he preferred to study effects of diffused light rather than those strong contrasts of light and shade. The colour of his portraits is sometimes crude, inclining to the use of positive and definite local pigments, and too little perceptive of the changeful subtleties and modifications of atmospheric effect. His draperies frequently consist of little more than two colours. Flesh often lacks the delicate refinements of colouring which distinguish the works of the great English portrait-painters; Raeburn's faces are often hard and bricky in hue. Yet the masculine power, vitality and strength of characterization so apparent in his paintings entitle him a prominent place in art history.
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