American University
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Mythologizing Mary: William Allan’s The Murder of David Riccio and Scottish National Identity in the 1820s

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posted on 2023-09-07, 05:09 authored by Danielle Therese Grega

This thesis analyzes Sir William Allan’s history painting The Murder of David Riccio (1833) in relation to the formation of Scottish identity at a pivotal moment in the nation’s history. The painting represents the death in 1566 of Mary Stuart’s trusted secretary at the hands of her husband Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, while the pregnant queen watches the grisly killing unfold. I argue that Allan uses the historical figure of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, as an allegory of Scotland. At the time Allan painted this work, artists across Europe were grappling with the problem of how pictorially to define “the nation”; often, they used female figures as allegorical representations of that abstract concept. Placing Allan’s painting in its historical and political context, I relate it to the artist’s Unionist political beliefs. In my interpretation, the painting attempts to forge a distinctly Scottish identity by celebrating one of the nation’s foremost leaders, while also legitimizing its union with Great Britain. I show that gender ideology plays a key role in this complex balancing act. By representing Mary as a passive and compliant figure, Allan makes Scotland the feminized partner to its more “masculine,” powerful partner, Britain. Allan thus mobilizes Mary as a symbolic figure who reconciles the nation’s particular character and autonomous past with its identity as a part of the United Kingdom.



American University




Degree Awarded: M.A. Art. American University


Degree grantor

American University. Department of Art

Degree level

  • Masters

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