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Oliver O`Donnell // Allan Ramsay and David Hume


In a letter of 1760, the Scottish painter Allan Ramsay noted that “by much drinking with David Hume and his associates, I have learnt to be very historical; and am nightly confirmed in the belief, that it is much easier to tell the How than the Why of any thing; and that it is moreover better suited to the state of man; who, we are all satisfied, from self-examination, is any thing rather than a rational animal.”  With this statement, the artist Ramsay reveals his basic sympathies for foundational premises of Hume’s famous philosophical arguments, which were deeply controversial at the time and which compose, like Ramsay’s paintings, a key chapter in the history of the Enlightenment.  But how did or could this like-mindedness between a painter and philosopher have manifest itself in actual pictures?  Pursued as part of my larger work for the Bilderfahrzeuge Group, the relationship between Ramsay and Hume forms part of a chapter in my current book project, Portraits of Empiricism: an art historical study of an Anglo-American tradition.