Nathaniel Dance was the eldest son of the architect George Dance Snr (1695-1768), designer of the Mansion House, and the brother of George Dance Jnr (1741-1825), architect of Newgate Gaol. He entered Merchant Taylors’ School in 1744 and then trained under Francis Hayman (?1708-1776) before travelling to Rome in 1754. He became a well-established portrait painter but had ambitions to succeed as a history painter, producing in 1759 The death of Virginia(untraced, but known from a sketch in the Soane Museum, London), the first dated classical history painting by a British artist working in Rome. In 1761 Dance was elected a member of the Incorporated Society of Artists.
In 1762 Dance assisted Pompeo Batoni (1708-1787), whose light palette and sophisticated manner influenced his own portrait style. Both artists painted Edward Augustus, Duke of York, George III’s brother, while he was in Rome in 1764. Dance’s version is in the Royal Collection at Buckingham Palace. The same year he painted a portrait of the Swiss-born artist Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807), with whom he was in love. (Kauffmann spurned both Dance and Joshua Reynolds, who was later equally besotted with her, in favour of marriage with a conman named Brandt).
Dance returned to London in 1765 and rapidly achieved fame as a portrait and history painter. His Timon of Athens, 1767 (Royal Collection, Buckingham Palace) was bought by George III and the following year Dance painted George III’s unstable brother-in-law Christian VII of Denmark (Royal Collection). After the King appointed Benjamin West as his history painter in 1771, Dance concentrated on portraits. He was a founder member of the Royal Academy in 1768 and showed portraits of George III and Queen Charlotte (Uppark, West Sussex, National Trust) at the first Academy exhibition in 1769. In 1771 he exhibited David Garrick as Richard III (Town Hall, Stratford-upon-Avon). By the mid-1770s Dance had become financially independent and upon his marriage in 1783 to Harriet Dummer, a wealthy widow and daughter of Sir Cecil Bisshopp, Bt., he virtually ceased painting. He resigned from the Academy in 1790 upon his election as MP for East Grinstead and thereafter only exhibited occasional landscapes as a ‘gentleman’. In 1800 he was created a baronet and took the name of Dance-Holland. He died in Winchester in 1811, leaving a fortune of more than £200,000.