Sir James Guthrie was born on June 10, 1859 in Greenock, Guthrie, he was the youngest child of the Rev. John Guthrie, D.D., Evangelical minister of the Evangelical Union church, by his wife, Ann, daughter of Thomas Orr. Guthrie originally enrolled at Glasgow University to study law, but abandoned this in favour of painting in 1877.
Unlike many of his contemporaries he did not study in Paris, being mostly self-taught, although he was mentored for a short time by James Drummond in Glasgow and then John Pettie in London. He lived most of his life in the Scottish Borders, most notably in Cockburnspath, Berwickshire, where he painted some of his most important works, including A Hind’s Daughter (1883), and Schoolmates. Guthrie was elected as an artist member of Glasgow Art Club on 1 November 1880, elected Vice president in 1886 and President in 1896-1897, and an Honorary Member on 25 April 1904. He married Helen Newton Whitelaw during the final year of his presidency and they had one son.
By 1883 he was a central figure of a group of artists that was to become known as ‘The Glasgow Boys’, which included Joseph Crawhall, George Henry and E. A. Walton. Back in 1885, this group caused a sensation with their first group exhibition. The opening night was the social event of the year, the critics were beside themselves and everyone agreed: these painters were the coming thing. It was the group’s bold use of colour and refusal to stay in their studios painting stags that had the art world in such a lather. Although the group had been painting together for a few years, it took this show to turn them into a phenomenon.
The Glasgow Boys were aware of the French Impressionists, who were rocking the art establishment with their revolutionary ideas, but they did not import their ideas wholesale. Instead, they were drawn to one individual painter, Jules Bastien-Lepage, and followed his iconoclastic lead. He created what is called ‘aerial perspective': instead of having lines that lead into the distance Bastien-Lepage created perspective by varying his brush stroke. The Boys picked up on this. It suited them because it was novel and it drew attention to their pictures. Throughout the 1880s and 90s, the Glasgow Boys were an international phenomenon.
He was elected an associate of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1888, and a full member in 1892. In 1902 he succeeded Sir George Reid as RSA president in 1902, where he used this position to bring about improvements in the facilities of the National Galleries of Scotland, and he was knighted the following year.
In 1885 Guthrie became a portrait painter, attempting to capture the character of his sitters rather than displaying a superficial technical virtuosity. At this time he also began working in pastels, at which he became greatly accomplished.
In 1898 he was part of the committee which grew into the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers, of which James McNeill Whistler, a great influence of the Guthrie, became President. Guthrie presided over the first Round Table Council dinner at the Café Royal in 1899, held after 2nd Exhibition, Pictures, Drawings, Prints and Sculptures, International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers, London, 1899. By the turn of the century, the Glasgow Boys had gone their separate ways, unlike their English equivalent, the Newlyn School, who stayed together painting rural life for 40 odd years. Several of the pastels Guthrie produced during this period show the everyday lives of the middle classes who lived around Helensburgh.
He died in Rhu, Dunbartonshire on September 6th 1930.