Few British artists represent the Romantic movement more completely than David Scott. Born in Edinburgh, the oldest surviving child of Robert Scott, an engraver of stern Calvinistic faith, he was an exact contemporary and friend of his fellow Scott William Dyce (see lot 156). But whereas Dyce was to enjoy a relatively long career, receive the patronage of Prince Albert and play a major role in the decoration of the new Palace of Westminster, David Scott died at the age of forty-three, racked by ill health, religious doubt, and an overwhelming sense of being misunderstood as an artist.
Having received his formal education at the High School in Edinburgh, Scott entered the Trustees Academy to train as an artist at the age of fourteen. He began his professional career as an apprentice to his father, but he had ambitions to become a painter and in 1828 he showed his first picture, prophetically entitled The Hopes of Genius dispelled by Death, at the Royal Institution in Edinburgh. He had already developed a powerful and histrionic style, inspired by engravings after Blake and Fuseli which he had known since boyhood, and further encouraged by the work of Haydon, Etty and John Martin, which he saw when he visited London that year. In 1829 he was elected a member of the Royal Scottish Academy and exhibited there for the first time; the picture was an Ossianic subject which again demonstrated his commitment to the Romantic agenda.
In August 1832 Scott set out for further study in Rome, which he reached after visiting Milan, Venice and Florence. He took a studio and remained until February 1834, working feverishly under the predictable influence of Michaelangelo. Delacroix, whose work he saw in Paris on the way home, also impressed him deeply. Back in Edinburgh, he aspired to lead a Scottish revival of history painting in the grand manner, and was not altogether unsuccessful. He was commissioned by the newly emancipated Roman Catholic community to paint an alterpiece for their chapel in Lothian Street. Other pictures were bought by the Association for the Promotion of the Fine Arts. His illustrations to Coleridge's Ancient Mariner (1837) were admired, and between 1839 and 1841 he published a series of articles on European painting in Blackwood's Magazine, expressing many of the ideas he had encountered on his travels.
But Scott was a victim of his own temperament. His exaggerated style bewildered the critics, who accused him of having 'the imagination of madness', while his morbid over-sensitivity caused him to pick quarrels and take offence where none was intended. His lack of success in the Westminster Hall competition of 1843, and his failure to gain the mastership of the Trustees' Academy the same year, further fuelled the sense of bitter disappointment which led to his death in March 1849. That his reputation survived at all was largely due to his younger brother, William Bell Scott (1811-1890), who published a Memoir of David in 1850. Bell Scott himself was an interesting artist, much influenced by his close association with the Pre-Raphaelites, although even he had something of his brother's prickly personality, as his autobiography, published posthumously in 1892, reveals.
The present work is a study for the altarpiece that Scott was commissioned to paint soon after his return from Italy for St Patrick's chapel in Lothian Street, Edinburgh. The composition owes an obvious debt to Rubens' altarpiece of the same subject in Antwerp Cathedral. Like The Agony of Discord (see lot 310), the painting no longer exists, but a study very similar to the present example is in the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh (fig. 1).