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The Gentle Scottish Painter David Allan

David Allan, Sir John Halkett of Pitfirrane, 4th Bart (1720 - 1793), Mary Hamilton, Lady Halkett and their Family , 1781, National Gallery Scotland

Artists' Stories

The Gentle Scottish Painter David Allan

If you like historical paintings and portraits, this article is for you. Today I want to introduce you to the Scottish painter David Allan who is known for these genres of painting.

David Allan, Self Portrait, 1770, Royal Scottish Academy of Art & Architecture

David Allan was born in Alloa in central Scotland in 1744. After studying at Foulis’s Academy of Fine Arts in Glasgow, Allan gained support from two sponsors and moved to Rome.

One of his best-known works is the painting shown below, The Origin of Painting, depicting a Corinthian virgin drawing a shadow of the lover. It is a common allegory used in the history of art and thanks to this work in 1773 Allan received the gold medal of the Academy of San Lucas.

David Allan Illustrations

David Allan, The Origin of Painting (‘The Maid of Corinth’), 1775, National Gallery Scotland

The Uncultivated Genius is another example of well-used meta-language. It shows a painter (probably Pietro Fabris) painting Vesuvius at the time of its eruption. While creating an atmosphere of chaos, the atmosphere of home is calm: the woman knits and a child plays on the floor. Portraits fill the room and the child produces a portrait (perhaps of the painter?) on the floor.

David Allan, The Uncultivated Genius, 1775, National Gallery Scotland

Another very beautiful portrait of Allan is that of the painter Anne Forbes, who was also Scottish and completed her artistic education in Rome. The portrait of Forbes is a beautiful composition because Allan manages to capture the artist the way she is: not helpless and fragile, but an independent and strong woman who knows her worth.

I love Anne’s look on this painting, she looks so confident! Her serene face corresponds well to the agility we suspect she has in her hands. Note that Allan chose to represent Anne at work and not simply as a passive model.

Scottish painter David Allan

David Allan, Anne Forbes, 1781, National Gallery Scotland

Allan’s work also includes illustrations and studies, and the representation of the abbey founded in 1217, Culross Abbey, is an example of his impressive mastery of perspective techniques and execution.

David Allan, Culross Abbey, Fife, 1781, National Gallery Scotland

He also illustrated the manuscript of the pastoral piece The Gentle Shepherd written by Allan Ramsay. In these illustrations, the humorous side of the painter is evident who with wit portrayed the scenes of the play.

David Allan, Illustration to Allan Ramsay’s ‘The Gentle Shepherd’: Act 5, Scene 2 – Glaud and Peggy, 1788, National Gallery Scotland

David Allan, Illustration to Allan Ramsay’s ‘The Gentle Shepherd’: Act 3, Scene 2 – Sir William Worthy and Patie, 1788, National Gallery Scotland

In 1786, Allan was appointed the director of the Edinburgh Academy of Arts, where he became known as the “Scottish Hogarth”. He died ten years later at the age of 52 after a lifetime dedicated to painting.

You might be also interested in:

Aesthetics and Romanticism: Scottish Art of the 18th Century

5 Gems of the National Gallery in Edinburgh


Someone who believes, through reading and intuition, that the history of art is the true history of humanity. In love with Renaissance art and a huge fan of the Impressionists.


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