Alexander Nasmyth is best known outside Scotland for the iconic portrait of his friend Robert Burns, however it is as a landscape painter that his importance in the history of Scottish arts lies. He was at first a portrait painter, having trained under Allan Ramsay, but withdrew from this genre and for about ten years painted theatre sets. David Roberts, in a letter to James Nasmyth (Alexander's son), remarked upon their influence on his own career telling him that the sight of a drop scene, a view of the Clyde, 'determined him to strive to attain excellence in that branch of fine art'. He also stated that, 'on them my style, if I have any, was originally formed'.
The generation of landscape painters before him, such as Jacob More and Alexander Runciman, taught Nasmyth the balance between topography and a sense of light and atmosphere. Whilst More and Runciman looked to Ancient Poetry and a heroic, more innocent age, Nasmyth took the Scottish landscape, its architecture and his people for his subject. Consequently, his influence was not just restricted to landscape painters but also genre painters such as Sir David Wilkie. He described Alexander Nasmyth in a letter of condolence to his widow as 'the founder of the landscape painting of Scotland, by his taste and talents took the lead for many years in the patriotic aim of enriching his native land with the representations of her romantic scenery'.
As well as an innovative painter, Alexander Nasmyth was also an important teacher, exerting a powerful influence on the next generation of Scottish painters, most of whom had some significant contact with him. Amongst Nasmyth's pupils were Andrew Wilson (1780-1840), Hugh 'Grecian' Williams (1773-1829), Rev. John Thomson of Duddingston (1778-1840), Sir David Wilkie (1785-1841) and David Roberts (1796-1864). Alexander Nasmyth's children also became successful painters: his daughters Anne, Barbara, Charlotte and Jane; the eldest son Patrick Nasmyth who went to London and became a significant member of the English landscape school and the youngest son James Nasmyth who became a famous engineer and inventor of the steam hammer before turning to art in his retirement.