The Scottish National Gallery: An Introduction

Photograph of neoclassical building with lawn in front

Founded in 1850 and opened to the public nine years later, the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh houses a superb collection of paintings, sculpture, and works on paper from the Renaissance to the end of the nineteenth century, including comprehensive holdings of Scottish art and works by the most celebrated masters of various European schools. Its origins lie with the establishment in 1819 of the Institution for the Encouragement of the Fine Arts in Scotland, which aimed to fulfill the Enlightenment ideal of promoting culture and learning through the exhibition of fine art. The institution’s acquisitions, which featured masterworks from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and several nineteenth-century paintings, became the museum’s founding collection in 1859. Important purchases and gifts quickly followed, among them, a significant group of works — including Watteau’s Fêtes Vénitiennes (on view in this exhibition) — bequeathed in 1861 by Lady Murray of Henderland and formerly in the collection of General John Ramsay, son of the painter Allan Ramsay. More recent acquisitions include the purchase in 1999 of Botticelli’s Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child, which had been in private hands in England and Scotland for more than 150 years and now makes its first appearance in an American museum.

Conceived as a “temple of the arts,” the Scottish National Gallery is housed in a handsome sandstone building designed by William Henry Playfair (1790–1857), one of Scotland’s foremost architects. The gallery has been expanded over time, most notably between 1999 and 2004, when it was connected to the Royal Academy of Scotland, an adjacent building also designed by Playfair. Together, these sister institutions represent a long history of dedication to the grand tradition of European painting in the heart of Edinburgh.

Above left: The Scottish National Gallery and the Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh © National Galleries of Scotland / Keith Hunter photography