Wilkie, a genre painter, served as a court artist under George IV and his successors. This painting, commissioned by the Earl of Essex in 1824, was exhibited by Wilkie at the Royal Academy in 1825. The scene’s rustic detail, as in the vignette of collie dogs lolling next to the open hearth, and its patriotic sentiment, which stems from the novels of Sir Walter Scott, explain the contemporary opinion that this work was not a costume piece but a "portrait painted from life."
Wilkie, born in Fife, moved to London in 1805 and enrolled in the Royal Academy schools. The following year he began to make a name for himself exhibiting genre subjects. In 1823 George IV appointed him King's Limner for Scotland. He travelled on the Continent from 1825 to 1828, thereafter serving George IV, William IV, and Victoria as painter-in-ordinary. He journeyed to the Holy Land and Constantinople in 1840 and, dying suddenly on the return trip, was buried at sea.
The fifth Earl of Essex (whose portrait by Reynolds is in the Museum's collection, 48.181) is reported to have commissioned The Highland Family in 1824 and to have paid three hundred fifty guineas for it. Wilkie was in Scotland from the late spring through the autumn of the year, and Cunningham (1843) asserted that this panel is "a portrait of what he had seen in the north rather than a work of the fancy" and that the artist put the "finishing touches" on it for the 1825 Royal Academy exhibition.
It was Wilkie's practice to prepare important pictures with sketches, but none have been identified for the present work and he may have developed the composition from an earlier painting or drawing. A study (British Museum, London) for the artist's best-known work, Chelsea Pensioners Reading the Gazette of the Battle of Waterloo (Apsley House, London), shows a man in top boots seated in the same position, with a baby on his shoulder and his wife beside him. Wilkie may have had this study or another like it in mind when he painted not only the figure of the Highlander in the present picture but also that in The Sportsman (1824; Wallace Collection, London), who sits at the right, facing left, with his legs extended and a gun in his left hand. The Border collie here must be based on the same drawing as the one in Roger Piping to Jenny, from "The Gentle Shepherd" (art market), a small panel signed and dated the previous year.
Wilkie sometimes arranged lay figures in a stagelike box, so that he could deploy them in groups and observe the effects of light. This and similar devices may have contributed to his fondness for horizontal compositions, low interiors with openings into other spaces, and sharp, directed light, often from a single source. The dark domestic interiors and the presence of a variety of barrels, kettles, and ceramic, copper, and glass vessels testify to his earlier studies of Flemish genre painting. While the still lifes in the fore- and middle ground of this painting are closely observed and in very good state, there is a major change in the background to the left, where Wilkie seems to have added the open door at a fairly late stage. In the 1820s his figures, as here, were often fewer in number and assumed larger proportions relative to the size of the interiors they inhabit.
The painting was engraved by William Finden in 1845 and by G. A. Periam in about 1848.
[2012; adapted from Baetjer 2009]
Inscription: Signed and dated (lower left): DAVID WILKIE f. 124
George Capel-Coningsby, 5th Earl of Essex, Cassiobury Park, Watford, Hertfordshire (1825–d. 1839); his nephew, Arthur Algernon Capell, 6th Earl of Essex, Cassiobury Park (1839–d. 1892; sale, Christie's, London, July 22, 1893, no. 49, as "Interior of a Highland Cottage: A Highland Warrior, returned from battle", for £357 to Sedelmeyer); [Sedelmeyer, Paris, 1893–94; cat., 1894, no. 100; sold on October 11 for Fr 17,000 to Knoedler]; [Knoedler, Paris and New York, 1894–1904; stock no. 7731, as "Return of the Highland Warrior,"; sold on December 8 for $5,500 to Fischer]; [Victor G. Fischer, Washinton, D.C., from 1904]; Morris K. Jesup, New York (until d. 1908); Maria DeWitt (Mrs. Morris K.) Jesup, New York (1908–d. 1914)
London. Royal Academy. 1825, no. 112 (as "The Highland family").
Edinburgh. Scottish Academy. 1832, no. 79 (as "The Highlander's Return to his Family", lent by the Earl of Essex).
London. British Institution. "Works of the late Sir David Wilkie, R.A. together with a Selection of pictures by Ancient Masters," June 1842, no. 61 (as "The Highland Family", lent by the Earl of Essex).
Manchester. Art Treasures Palace. "Art Treasures of the United Kingdom," May 5–October 17, 1857, no. 601 (as "Interior of a Highland Cottage," lent by the Earl of Essex).
"obituary of David Wilkie." Athenæum no. 711 (June 12, 1841), p. 459.
"British Institution." Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine 52 (September 1842), p. 332.
Allan Cunningham. The Life of Sir David Wilkie. London, 1843, vol. 2, pp. 138, 141; vol. 3, p. 526, relates that the painting was commissioned by the earl of Essex and that Wilkie "put the finishing touches" to it before sending it to the 1825 Royal Academy; describes it as "a portrait of what he had seen in the north rather than a work of fancy".
The Wilkie Gallery. London, n.d. [1848–50], p. 82, ill. opp. p. 82 (engraving by G. A. Periam).
Mrs. Charles Heaton. The Great Works of Sir David Wilkie. London, 1868, pl. 20 (engraving by W. Finden).
John W. Mollett. Sir David Wilkie. London, 1881, p. 67, mentions that in addition to the earl of Essex's picture Wilkie painted a Highland Family for Sir George Beaumont.
Illustrated Catalogue of 100 Paintings of Old Masters . . . belonging to the Sedelmeyer Gallery. Paris, 1894, pp. 116–17, no. 100, ill., as "Highland Warrior returning from the Battle".
Edward Pinnington. Sir David Wilkie and the Scots School of Painters. Edinburgh, n.d. , pp. 107, 151, as "among the pictures upon which his [Wilkie's] fame most securely rests"; records the price the earl paid for it in 1825 as 350 guineas.
Ronald Sutherland Gower. Sir David Wilkie. London, 1902, pp. 93, 130, lists it among pictures that cannot be traced.
William Bayne. "Sir David Wilkie, R.A." The Makers of British Art. London, 1903, pp. 100, 220.
Francina Irwin. "Wilkie at the Cross Roads." Burlington Magazine 116 (April 1974), p. 216.
Catherine Hoover. "The Influence of David Wilkie's Prints on the Genre Paintings of William Sidney Mount." American Art Journal 13 (Summer 1981), pp. 32–33, notes that William Finden's engraving after it was published on July 17, 1845.
Elizabeth A. Pergam. "From Manchester to Manhattan: The Transatlantic Art Trade After 1857." Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 87, no. 2 (2005), pp. 87–88.
Katharine Baetjer. British Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1575–1875. New York, 2009, pp. 250–51, no. 120, ill. (color).