The portrait was painted in July 1805, four months before William Robertson was seated on the Scottish bench with the title Lord Robertson. He wears the wig and robes of a Lord of Session.
The sitter, born in 1753, was the eldest son of Dr. William Robertson and his wife, née Mary Nisbet. Dr. Robertson was a clergyman, historian, and chancellor of the University of Edinburgh, which commissioned and still owns his portrait by Raeburn of 1792. The younger Robertson studied law and was admitted to the bar as an advocate in 1775. In 1779 he was chosen procurator, or chief counsel, to the Church of Scotland. In 1805 he was seated on the Scottish bench with the title Lord Robertson. He was a judge of the Court of Session, Scotland’s supreme civil court, until 1826 and died nine years later.
The inscription indicates that Raeburn painted Robertson during the summer of 1805. He wears a wig and white bands with the gray-and-crimson gown of a Lord of Session. While some passages may once have been more legible, Raeburn probably would not have described the sitter’s costume any more precisely. He has also left the ill-proportioned chair largely to the viewer’s imagination. By contrast, he sheds sharp light on the bony structure of Robertson’s face and depicts the drapery and ribbons of his gown with a flurry of red, salmon, white, and black strokes. In the abstractions of the patterns and in the sensuous quality of the pigments he used here, the artist was ahead of his time. This portrait was neither published nor illustrated until 1920 and does not figure in the Raeburn literature.
[2010; adapted from Baetjer 2009]
by descent to Dr. S. D. Robertson Macdonald MacVicar, Invermoidart, Argyll (until 1920; sale, Christie's, London, July 23, 1920, no. 4, for £1,155 to Knoedler); [Knoedler, London and New York, and Colnaghi, London; 1920–21; sold for $18,000 to Field]; Marshall Field III, Chicago (1921–26; sold for $22,500 to Knoedler); [Knoedler, New York, 1926; sold for $40,000 to Harkness]; Mr. and Mrs. Edward S. Harkness, New York (1926–his d. 1940); Mrs. Edward S. (Mary Stillman) Harkness, New York (1940–d. 1950)
Bordeaux. Galerie des Beaux-Arts. "Profil du Metropolitan Museum of Art de New York: de Ramsès à Picasso," May 15–September 1, 1981, no. 112.
"List of Gifts and Bequests of Mr. and Mrs. Harkness." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 10 (October 1951), p. 86.
Katharine Baetjer. "British Portraits in The Metropolitan Museum of Art." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 57 (Summer 1999), p. 60, ill. p. 59 (color).
Katharine Baetjer. British Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1575–1875. New York, 2009, p. 169, no. 82, ill. (color).