John Martin
Biography of Romantic Historical Landscape Painter.

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The Great Day of His Wrath (1853)
Tate Collection London. One of
Martin's great historical landscapes.

Paintings by John Martin, one of
the great English romantic artists,
are also widely available online
in the form of poster art.

John Martin (1789-1854)

One of the great exponents of Romanticism, the 19th century English painter, illustrator and mezzotint engraver John Martin, achieved huge popular acclaim with his history painting (more accurately, historical landscape painting) featuring melodramatic scenes of apocalyptic events taken from the Bible and other mythological sources. Influenced by the work of J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) as well as other history painters like Theodore Gericault (1791–1824), Eugene Delacroix (1798–1863) and Paul Delaroche (1797–1856), as well as landscapists like Salvator Rosa (1615-73), his paintings are characterised by dramatic lighting and vast architectural settings. Most of his pictures were reproduced by way of engraving (and book illustration) from which he derived his fortune. Despite his popularity however, his work was spurned by the critics, notably John Ruskin, and he was not elected to the Royal Academy. His fame declined rapidly after his death, although three of his best known works of religious art toured Britain and America in the 1870s: The Great Day of his Wrath (1853, Tate, London), The Last Judgment (1853, Tate) and The Plains of Heaven (1851-3, Tate). A great contributor to English landscape painting, Martin was a key influence on Thomas Cole (1801-48), one of the founding members of the Hudson River School, the most important American Landscape movement.

For an idea of the pigments
used by John Martin, see:
Colour Palette Nineteenth Century.

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For the top allegorical painting,
see: Best History Painters.

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Artistic Training and Early Success

Martin was born in Haydon Bridge, Northumberland in 1789 - the same week that the Bastille was stormed in Paris. Initially apprenticed to a coachbuilder to learn heraldic painting, due to a dispute over money he was soon placed with an Italian china painter Bonifacio Musso. He travelled in 1806 with Musso to London. There he supported himself painting china and glass while studying architecture and linear perspective. At the age of 19, he married and settled in London. Martin sent his first painting Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion (Saint Louis Art Museum, Missouri) to the Academy in 1812, where it duly sold. The President of the Royal Academy, Benjamin West (1738–1820), encouraged the young artist, and the following year, Martin submitted Adam's First Sight of Eve (1813), which also sold. Martin was influenced by the landscapes of Northumberland; its craggy rocks often appeared in his paintings. Martin then began focusing more on Biblical scenes, which were becoming popular at the time due to people travelling to the Middle East and writing about their tales.

In 1816, he achieved his first major fame with Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still (1816, United Grand Lodge of Great Britain, London). In this canvas, we can see what would soon become an obsession - the detailed rendering of Old Testament architectural styles. Although similar in style to his painting Sadak, it in fact represents a progression for the artist, breaking the rules of conventional composition. It has overtures of Turner's Hannibal Crossing the Alps (1810-12, Tate) and Battle of Alexander (1529, Alte Pinakothek, Munich) by Albrecht Altdorfer (1480-1538). In 1818, with the proceeds (£1,000) of the sale of his Fall of Babylon (The British Museum, London), Martin was able to buy a house in fashionable Marylebone, London and invited artists, writers and patrons to afternoons. He continued throughout his life to send his most important pictures to show at the Royal Academy, but was never elected to membership. Instead, he joined the Society of British Artists, and exhibited with them between 1824 and 1838.


Mature Career

Martin eventually began earning more money from reproductions of his works, than the actual works themselves. A mezzotint engraver, he was keen to make prints of his paintings, as a 'means which would enable the public to see my productions, and give me a chance of being remunerated for my labours'. The artist did not just view his prints as commercial reproductions, but as works of art in their own right. He involved himself in the production process at every stage, even inking his own plates, a job which was normally left to specialist printers. The mezzotint was an ideal medium for creating painterly effects, as the process allowed the artist to create dramatic chiaroscuro. This suited Martin's apocalyptic subject matter. In 1823 he was commissioned by an American publisher to illustrate Milton's poem Paradise Lost. In total he completed a set of 24 large and smaller engravings. Copies of the artist's popular paintings could be found in middle class homes around England from the mid 1830s onwards. However, for almost a decade (c.1826-36), he abandoned painting to help his brother Jonathan, known (like himself) as 'Mad Martin' with court proceedings. The brother had set fire to York Minister and was only spared the hangman's noose on grounds of insanity. Martin also helped another brother in the design of engineering plans to improve London's water supply. Unfortunately it seems that the family genes were an issue, Martin himself later in life developed a form of manic depression, which was exacerbated by financial troubles. Popular with European royalty, the artist eventually became official historical painter to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, Queen Victoria's uncle, for a period of time. He was bestowed with the Order of Leopold and elected member of the Belgian Academy.

Artistic Criticism

In 1852, Martin sent his last contribution Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (1852, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle) to the Royal Academy. In 1853, while working on his paintings: The Last Judgment, The Great Day of His Wrath and The Plains of Heaven, he suffered a sudden paralysis on his right side, and died the following year. Sadly, even before his death, art critics were already tiring of his work, describing it as mechanical. The Scottish artist David Wilkie (1785-1841) wrote that although Martin's painting was: 'Weak in all these points in which he can be compared to other artists, he had the compensating quality of an imposing, if at times operatic, imagination'. Whatever the critics thought, the public loved him.

Martin's work influenced the American painter Thomas Cole (1801-48) who founded the Hudson River School, an American art movement that was popular in the mid-19th century. Followers were known for their detailed and realistic depiction of American landscape and wilderness, which featured themes of romanticism and naturalism. The Pre-Raphaelites, especially Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882) were also inspired.

A selection of John Martin’s paintings, including The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (1852), The Bard (1817) and Clytie (1814) can be seen on permanent display at the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle. In 2010 the gallery established a fundraising effort to purchase several Martin paintings which are in some of the best art museums in Britain and America.

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