Art in Scotland cannot readily be defined with the aid of a series of identifiable and distinct movements, in the way that can be found elsewhere in art history, particularly within modern art of the twentieth century. It is possible, however, to identify clusters of artists within and across periods in Scottish art history, whose like-minded concerns or common style allow them to be usefully grouped together.
The schools of art education in Scotland, which developed in Edinburgh and Glasgow in the nineteenth century, provided the first centres of activity for the development of identifiable movements or groups in Scottish art. At Edinburgh’s Trustees’ Academy in the years around 1850, under the directorship of Robert Scott Lauder, the painters George Paul Chalmers, William McTaggart, John Pettie and William Quiller Orchardson showed a particular talent for colour and line combined with an inventive approach to subject-matter which marked them out as a distinct product of a newly flourishing Scottish scene.
Later in the century a group of young artists influenced by the realist painting of continental artists such as Bastien-Lepage, began to exhibit in Glasgow in the 1880s works which made clear their concern for an art more in touch with everyday reality. E. A. Walton’s A Daydream and James Guthrie’s A Hind’s Daughter typifies the Glasgow Boys (as they came to be known) preoccupation with painting ordinary life in an honest and unaffected manner. At the same time, a group of younger Glasgow-based artists, led by the designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh, developed their own response to the international Art Nouveau movement, producing symbolist paintings and applied art in the Glasgow Style.
Many of the Glasgow Boys had gone to France to study and work in the Paris studio system or in the rural artists’ colonies. This and their subsequent success influenced four artists of the next generation, now known collectively as the Scottish Colourists. Samuel John Peploe, John Duncan Fergusson, Francis Campbell Boileau Cadell and George Leslie Hunter all went to France early in their careers. Peploe and Fergusson in particular spent extended periods in Paris in the years around 1910, producing brilliantly coloured expressionistic paintings which warrant their close association with the Fauve art of Matisse and Derain of the same time. By the 1920s Cadell and Hunter were painting in a similar vibrant manner, and the four’s work was subsequently brought together in exhibitions. Although the Colourists' subject matter, predominantly still life and landscape, remained traditional, their progressive attitude places them at the forefront of modern Scottish painting.
The application of Modernism’s colouring and abstraction to traditional subject matter prevailed in Scottish art for much of the first half of the twentiethth century. This was especially so in Edinburgh, where the intuitive painterly talents of William Gillies, John Maxwell, Anne Redpath and William MacTaggart gave rise to the so-called Edinburgh School.
Most recently, in the 1980s, the international revival of interest in ambitious figure painting found a centre in the prodigious talents of Steven Campbell, Stephen Conroy, Peter Howson, Ken Currie and Adrian Wiszniewski. Their close association with Glasgow School of Art, where all had been students, and their forceful imagery led them to be dubbed the New Glasgow Boys.
In addition, there are numerous figures in Scottish art whose broader interests variously attach them to international movements. The eighteenth century Lanark-born Gavin Hamilton’s vast history paintings, produced in Rome, were celebrated during his lifetime as a principal expression of neo-classicism. In more recent times, the artist Stanley Cursiter flirted with Futurism in a series of paintings he produced in the early 1910s, while in the 1950s the Fife-born abstract painter William Gear became a member of the progressive and urbane CoBrA movement (which was centred on Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam). Each is symptomatic that art in Scotland has not developed in isolation, but has contributed to and has benefitted from a wider artistic evolution.