At the beginning of the sixteenth century Scotland was a Catholic state governed by the Stewart dynasty (who later spelled their name Stuart). By the close of the seventeenth century the monarchy, church and parliament had all changed drastically.
After 1603 the Stuarts, now based in London, were absentee rulers, and the nature of kingship was itself increasingly contested. The huge upheavals of the Reformation saw Protestantism become the nation’s official religion. The collapse of the old church and the dispersal of its lands and wealth brought about a major shift of power and income: new landed classes vied with established noble families for status and influence.
These complex changes had important cultural consequences. With religious painting no longer acceptable, there was an increase in demand for secular art forms, portraiture in particular. This coincided with a growing merchant and professional class beginning to commission works of art to display their increased ambition and economic strength.
Painted portraits were expensive, and those who acquired them came from the wealthiest levels of society, both old and new. These men and women used portraits to assert ideas of social status as well as to record an individual likeness. Their images played a significant role in the struggles for power, identity and nationhood during this period.