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Significant Scots
Alexander Nasmyth


NASMYTH, ALEXANDER.—This excellent artist, the father of the Scottish school of landscape painting, was born in Edinburgh, in the year 1758. Having finished his early education in his native city, he went, while still a youth, to London, where he became the apprenticed pupil of the Scottish Vandyke, Allan Ramsey, son of the author of the "Gentle Shepherd." Under this distinguished master, Nasmyth must have been a diligent scholar, as his future excellence in portrait painting sufficiently attested. Italy, however, was the land of his artistic affections; and in that beautiful country, where nature and art equally unfold their rich stores for the study of the painter, he became a resident for several years. During this period he ardently devoted himself to his chosen profession of historical and portrait painting. Bat this was not enough to satisfy his aspirations. The silent but attractive beauty of nature, over its wide range of varied scenery, led him at his leisure hours among the rich Italian landscapes, which he studied with the fondness of an enthusiast and the eye of a master; and in this way, while he was daily employed in copying the best productions of the Italian schools, and learning, for the purpose of imitating, their excellencies, he was also a diligent attendant at the fountain-head, and qualifying himself to be a great landscape painter, in which, afterwards, his distinction principally consisted. To these were added the noble productions of ancient and modern architecture, that breathe the breath of life through inanimate scenes, and speak of man, the soul of creation—the mouldering walls and monuments of past generations and mighty deeds, alternated with those stately palaces and picturesque cottages that form the homes of a living generation. It was not enough for Nasmyth to delineate these attractive vistas and noble fabrics, and store them in his portfolio, as a mere stock in trade upon which to draw in future professional emergencies. He, on the contrary, so completely identified himself with their existence, that they became part and parcel of his being. This he evinced some fifty years after, when Wilkie, then fresh from Italy, visited the venerable father-artist, and conversed with him upon the objects of his recent studies. On that occasion Nasmyth astonished and delighted him by his Italian reminiscences, which were as fresh, as life-like, and full of correct touches, as if he had but yesterday left the country of Raffaele and Michael Angelo.

On returning from Italy, Nasmyth commenced in earnest the profession of a portrait painter in his native city. In those days personal vanity was to the full as strong in Edinburgh as it is at present, while portrait painters, at least artists worthy of the title, were very scarce; and it was not wonderful, therefore, that the talents of Nasmyth in this department should soon find ample occupation. The most distinguished gentlemen and ladies of his day were proud to sit to him; and of the numerous portraits which he produced, his admirable likeness of Burns will always be considered as a valuable national monument of our honoured peasant bard. But still the artist’s enthusiasm lay elsewhere: the countenance of nature possessed more charms for him than even the "human face divine," and he could not forget the delight he had experienced in sketching the beautiful and picturesque scenery of Italy. And his own native Scotland too—was it not rich in scenes that were worthy of the highest efforts of his art, although they had hitherto been overlooked? To this department he therefore turned, and became exclusively a landscape painter, while his successful efforts quickly obtained for him a still higher distinction than his portraits had secured. The admiration excited by his numerous productions in this style of art, necessarily occasioned frequent visits to the mansions of the noble and wealthy, by whom he was employed; and while his chief hours there were devoted to strictly professional employment, his walks of recreation in the garden or over the grounds, were by no means idle; whatever object he saw was at once electrotyped upon his brain, on which his busy fancy was employed in altering, touching, and retouching, until an improved and complete picture was the result. His suggestions, the fruit of such artistic taste, combined with careful study, were received with pleasure, and their effect was an improvement in the scenic beauty of the gardens and pleasure-grounds, by the alterations he had indicated. This circumstance gave a new direction to his professional labours; he must create scenery as well as paint it. The necessity was laid upon him by his widely-reported fame as an improver, so that numerous applications were made upon his time for such suggestions as might heighten and harmonize the mansion scenery of our country. He therefore added this to his other occupations, and found in it an ample source of emolument, as well as professional enjoyment. And no one who has witnessed the condition of our old Scottish feudal homes, that doggedly resisted every modern innovation, will deny the necessity of such an office as that which was thrust upon Nasmyth. Many a stately castellated and time-honoured abode of the day, which still looked as if it expected a Highland spreagh or border foray, and cared for nothing but its defences, was converted by Nasmyth’s arrangements into the striking central object of a rich scenic fore and background, upon which the tourist could pause with delight, instead of hurrying by, as he had been wont to do, with the disappointed exclamation, "I will take mine ease in mine inn!" Nor was the enthusiasm of Nasmyth confined exclusively to rural beauty and its improvement. He appreciated the noble site of Edinburgh, that fitting throne for the queen of cities, and was anxious that man’s art should correspond with nature’s beneficence in such a favoured locality. He therefore gave suggestions for the improvement of our street architecture, which have been happily followed, while many others have been partially adopted, connected with the rich scenery of our northern metropolis, by which the whole aspect of the city from its environs has been improved at every point. The capabilities, in an artistic point of view, of his native city, was the favourite theme of his evening conversations to the close of his long-protracted life; and many can still remember how ancient Athens itself was eclipsed by the pictures which he drew of what Edinburgh might be made, through the advantages of her position, and the taste of her citizens.

To these important and engrossing occupations Nasmyth added that of teacher of his art, by opening a school of paintilig in his own house, where he had for his pupils many who have since distinguished themselves in different departments of pictorial excellence. Among these may be mentioned his own family of sons and daughters, all of whom were more or less imbued with his spirit, particularly his eldest son, Peter, who died before him, whose paintings now take their place among those of our foremost British artists. In this way the days of Alexander Nasmyth were spent, until first one generation of artists, and then another had passed away; but although more than eighty years had now whitened his head and wrinkled his brow, he still pursued his beloved occupation, as if death alone could arrest the labours of his pencil. And that all the ardour as well as skill of his former life continued unabated, was shown in his last work but one, "The Bridge of Augustus," which he sent to the exhibition of the Royal Scottish Academy. At length the hoary veteran died, and died at his post. A melancholy interest is attached to his final effort. A few days before his last illness, he expressed to his daughter Jane, herself an artist of no ordinary excellence, his wish to paint something, but his difficulty in finding a subject. After some deliberation and rejection, he said he would paint a little picture, which he would call "Going Home." The subject was an old labourer wending homeward at evening, when his day of labour had ended. The sombre evening sky reposes upon the neighbouring hills; on the foreground is an ancient oak, the patriarch of the forest, but now in the last stage of decay, with one of its arms drooping over a brisk stream—that stream of time which will still flow onward as merrily when the whole forest itself has passed away. The old labourer, with the slow step of age, is crossing a broken rustic bridge, and supporting himself by its slender railing, while his faithful dog, who accompanies him, seems impatient to reach home, a lonely cottage at a distance in the middle ground, where the smoke curling from the roof announces that supper is in readiness. It was the artist’s own silent requiem. His last illness, which continued five weeks, was soothed by the solicitude of his family, to whom he declared that he had lived long enough, and could not die better than when surrounded by such dutiful, affectionate children. He died of natural decay, at his house, 47, York Place, Edinburgh, on the 10th of April, 1840, at the advanced age of eighty-two.

Alexander Nasmyth, soon after his return from Italy, married the sister of Sir James Foulis of Woodhall, Colinton, who survived him, and by whom he had a numerous family, distinguished for talent and success in their several departments of life. Seldom, indeed, is paternal care so well rewarded, or paternal genius so perpetuated.


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