John Runciman received his early training in drawing and etching from his older brother, Alexander Runciman. In 1767 an advance for a commission to paint the saloon and staircases of Penicuik House enabled the brothers to travel to Italy. John's talent provoked jealousy from rivals within the expatriate artistic community in Rome, notably from James Nevay, a fellow Scot. This unpleasantness, together with ill-health, prompted him to leave for Naples after destroying much of his work. He died in Naples from tuberculosis before his brother could reach him. This self-portrait was painted shortly after John Runciman arrived in Rome. He seems to be pondering the greatness of Michelangelo's figure of Day, seen behind him.