Alexander Nasmyth (9 September
1758–10 April 1840) was a Scottish portrait and landscape
painter, a pupil of Allan Ramsay.
Nasmyth was born in Edinburgh on 9 September 1758. He
studied at the Royal High School and the Trustees’ Academy
and was apprenticed to a coachbuilder. Aged sixteen, he was
taken to London by portrait painter Allan Ramsay where he
worked on subordinate parts of Ramsay's works. Nasmyth
returned to Edinburgh in 1778, where he worked as a portrait
painter. Offered a loan by Patrick Miller of Dalswinton,
Nasmyth left in 1782 for Italy, where he remained two years
furthering his studies. In Italy he devoted most of his
attention to landscape painting, and is recorded as having
copied a work by Claude.
Nasmyth returned to Scotland where for the next few years he
continued his career as a portraitist. He painted some works
in the style of Ramsay, but most were conversation pieces
with outdoor settings. His portrait of Robert Burns, who
became a close friend, is now in the Scottish National
Gallery. Eventually, Nasmyth’s strong Liberal opinions
offended many of his aristocratic patrons in a politically
charged Edinburgh, leading to a falling off in commissions
for portraits, and in 1792 he completely abandoned the
genre, turning instead to landscape painting. He also began
painting scenery for theatres, an activity he continued for
the next thirty years, and in 1796 painted a panorama.
His landscapes are all of
actual places, and architecture is usually an important
element. Some works were painted to illustrate the effects
that new buildings would have on an area, such as Inverary
from the Sea, painted for the Duke of Argyll to show the
setting a proposed lighthouse.
Naysmith had a great
interest in engineering, and proposed several ideas that
were later widely used, although he never patented any of
them. In October 1788, when Patrick Miller sailed the
world's first successful steamship on Dalswinton Loch,
Nasmyth was one of the crew.
He was employed by members
of the Scottish nobility in the improvement and
beautification of their estates. He designed the circular
temple covering St Bernard's Well by the Water of Leith
(1789), and bridges at Almondell, West Lothian, and Tongland,
Kirkcudbrightshire. In 1815 he was one of those invited to
submit proposals for the expansion of Edinburgh New Town.
Nasmyth set up a drawing
school and "instilled a whole generation with the importance
of drawing as a tool of empirical investigation"; his pupils
included David Wilkie, David Roberts, Clarkson Stanfield and
John Thomson of Duddingston; and it was probably from him
that John James Ruskin (father of John Ruskin) learned to
paint as a schoolboy in Edinburgh in the later 1790s.
Another successful pupil was the painter, teacher, art
dealer and connoisseur Andrew Wilson, who had his first art
training under Nasmyth.
Nasmyth died in Edinburgh
and was buried in St Cuthbert's Churchyard at the west end
of Princes Street.
Nasmyth's six daughters all became artists. His eldest son,
Patrick Nasmyth, studied under his father, then went to
London and attracted attention as a landscapist. Another
son, James Nasmyth, invented the steam hammer.
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