Little is known about David Allan's watercolour depicting an "Edinburgh milkmaid" other than that it is believed likely that she was a servant. It is thought it has never been on public display in Edinburgh before.
The National Galleries, which has issued an appeal for information about the painting, hopes that new research project will shed light on the connection between the artist and the young woman.
Allan was well known for painting "Edinburgh characters" as they went about their daily lives, including soldiers, coalmen, fishwives, sedan chair porters and officers of the city guard.
The Alloa-born artist is said to be one of the first painters in Scotland to consider that people and customs from across the social spectrum were worthy of depicting in art.
He developed an interest in depicting scenes of street life during a decade living in Italy from 1767, where he sketched vendors, aristocrats, coffee houses, dances and carnivals in Rome and Naples and on the islands of Procida, Ischia and Minorca.
The National Galleries said Allan’s milkmaid painting, which was acquired from an art dealer for an undisclosed sum, was one of the earliest known images of a black person by a Scottish artist.
An official announcement about the acquisition stated: “Edinburgh Milkmaid with Butter Churn by David Allan is a beautifully painted watercolour which is both exceptionally rare and striking. It depicts a black woman alone and centre stage at a time when black sitters more often appeared as marginal or subservient figures in group portraits.“Looking directly at the viewer, she is shown in working dress, going about her daily duties and set against the backdrop of an elegant Edinburgh street. Her name and life story is unknown, but it is likely that she was a servant, a milkmaid, as suggested by the large vessel or butter churn shown beside her.”Modest in scale, the image is dated to the mid-1780s to early 1790s, a period when Allan created evocative drawings of ordinary people going about their daily lives in Edinburgh.
“These works, known as Allan’s ‘Edinburgh Characters’, suggest a background context for Edinburgh Milkmaid with Butter Churn, but they are generally sketched in a summary way, intended to capture character types, rather than specific personalities, and were often copied and duplicated.“The Edinburgh Milkmaid, however, is highly detailed, precisely painted and clearly a portrait of a specific person.
"It is hoped that further research may reveal more about the connection between the artist and the young woman and shed some light on her identity.”Dr Christopher Baker, director of European and Scottish art at the National Galleries, said: “We’re so pleased to bring this remarkable, rare and extraordinary watercolour into Scotland’s national collection.
“It is an incredibly striking and special work, one which we believe will be enjoyed by many and, we hope, lead to new research on its background and most importantly the story of the woman depicted.”