Allan Ramsay


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Painter, Essayist and Man of the Enlightenment

Alastair Smart

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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.

Published for the Paul Mellon Center for Studies in British Art

Alastair Smart (1922-92) worked for forty years gathering material for this volume, but it was incomplete at his death.  John Ingamells has edited Smart's extensive notes and added subsequent material. 

"A rewarding book to read. This volume will do much to awaken new interest in one of Britian’s great portrait artists and intellectuals."--Floyd W. Martin, Albion

"[A] definitive biography . . . vividly and elegantly written."--Angela Cox, Art History

“Yet again, Yale has produced an essential addition to the bookshelves of all those interested in 18th-century British art.”--Hugh Belsey, Country Life

"A book written with profound and wide-ranging knowledge, skill, and affection, entitling it to a broad categorization under ’humanities’ rather than ’art history’. . . . Smart’s account of Ramsay’s social network and its relevance to his art leaves one breathless at its complexity."--Charles McCorquodale, Literary Review

"One of the year’s most persuasive monographs. Written with verve and an abundance of information and insight, it firmly characterises one of the eighteenth century’s most subtle portraitists."--Charles McCorquodale, The Art Newspaper

"A long-awaited new life of Ramsay by the living authority, Alastair Smart."--Godfrey Barker, The Daily Telegraph

"The dedication to a particular subject, the quiet, determined line of research and the gentle, almost reflective form of presentation, are all characteristic features of Smart’s scholarship. . . . His range of interests, his powers of visual analysis, his tenacious and resourceful methods of research, his spare but considered literary style and his gentle but wry discourse, will undoubtedly remain influential."--Christopher Lloyd, The Guardian

"A tremendously well-informed biography . . . rarely anything other than entertaining."--Philip Hensher, The Guardian

"[A] magisterial new biography. . . . If there is anything that Smart does not know about Ramsay, we may safely take it that it is not worth knowing. . . . Handsomely produced."--Ian McIntyre, The Times, (London)

ISBN: 9780300056907
Publication Date: October 28, 1992
Publishing Partner: Published for the Paul Mellon Center for Studies in British Art
320 pages, 9 x 10 1/2
150 b/w + 70 color illus.