Home Historical art This watercolor is one of the earliest depictions of a black woman living in Scotland

This watercolor is one of the earliest depictions of a black woman living in Scotland


David Allan, “Edinburgh Milkmaid with Butter Churn” (circa 1780-1790) (all images courtesy of the National Galleries of Scotland)

Last week, the National Galleries of Scotland announced the acquisition of one of the first known images of a black woman by a Scottish artist. “The Edinburgh Milkmaid with Butter Churn” by artist David Allan is a rare 18th-century watercolor that takes a black woman as the main subject at a time when they were generally relegated to the fringes of portraiture.

Born in central Scotland in 1744, Allan studied at the Foulis Academy of Fine Arts in Glasgow. After spending a decade in Italy painting portraits and historical paintings, Allan became interested in drawing expressive sketches of street life. Arguably the first Scottish artist to eschew the pictorial tradition of depicting historical scenes and aristocracy in favor of people across the social hierarchy, Allan drew inspiration from all walks of contemporary life.

‘Edinburgh Milkmaid’ is a small-scale depiction of what appears to be a working-class woman, as her modest dress suggests against the backdrop of an upscale Edinburgh street. Captured in the middle of the day, the woman, standing next to her milk churn, gently gazes at the viewer. Allan paints the Nameless Woman delicately, being careful to emphasize the patterns and shadows of her dress and the intricacies of her unassuming expression.

David Allan, “An Edinburgh Fishmonger” (c. 1785) from his Edinburgh characters series

Although much is unknown about the painting and its subject, this image may be inspired by a group of works known as Allan Edinburgh characters, a series that depicts the life of ordinary citizens of the city. Allan started the series around 1788 and drew over 20 pictures of workers and traders among the tools of their trade. These works usually featured an individual or a pair of figures drawn in thick outlines in ink to easily reproduce the image.

Unlike “The Milkmaid of Edinburgh,” dated to the mid-1780s to the early 90s, Allan’s character studies were evocative designs that simply captured types, often eluding the detailed expressions and personalities of the models. The Edinburgh characters only showed the essence of people like charcoal burners, soldiers and fishwomen, but never their specific identities, offering a glimpse into the city’s mid-1780s. Many images from the series are held in the collection of the National Galleries.

“We are delighted to integrate this remarkable, rare and extraordinary watercolor into the Scottish National Collection,” said Christopher Baker, European and Scottish Art Director for the National Galleries of Scotland, in a statement. “It is an incredibly striking and special work, which we believe will be popular with many and, we hope, lead to further research into its background and, most importantly, the history of the woman depicted.”

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