(Haydon Bridge, Northumberland, England, 1789 – 1854, Douglas, Isle of Man)
John Martin was a native of Northumberland who received little early formal training as a fine artist. He apprenticed at fourteen to a coach-builder in Newcastle, with the intention of learning to paint the heraldic devices that were placed on coach doors, but left that situation after about a year. Hoping to gain more traditional art training, he became a pupil of Boniface Musso, an Italian painter who had settled and opened a studio in Newcastle. Martin gained sufficient skills after a year with Musso to allow him to leave for London in 1806 to pursue a career as a decorative painter of china and glass. Between 1806 and 1811 this work served to provide his primary livelihood. (1)
Despite his lack of traditional formal study, in the 1820s Martin became one of the best-known painters in London, his work exhibited to great acclaim at the annual exhibitions of the Royal Academy. The artist’s success was founded both on his self-honed skill as a painter as well as the subjects he depicted: scenes of dramatic landscapes with spectacular visual effects that, during that era, were very popular with the general public. Paintings such as “Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still upon Gibeon” (1817) and “Belshazzar’s Feast” (1821) were typical of scenes derived from Biblical and other literary sources in which the sweeping grandeur of space and architecture dominated the compositions, with the human and celestial figures playing minor roles.
Simultaneously with his success as a painter, Martin began to produce prints, some of them reproducing his paintings, but also works that were original compositions. Between 1824 and 1841, Martin earned some £ 20,000 from the production and sale of his prints, a sizeable sum at the time. His specialty was mezzotint, although he also created etchings, reinforcing some of his mezzotints with etching and drypoint. Because his mezzotints were created on steel plates, the published editions were sizable, but their quality consistent due to the strength of the matrix. He issued reproductive mezzotints after his most important paintings until about 1835, after which time the popularity of his work waned, and he devoted himself to smaller paintings and watercolors. In the last two decades of his life, he also devoted considerable time and energy to several engineering schemes—improving the quality of London’s water supply and new methods for ventilating coal mines—with the intention of doing work that would more directly benefit the general population. Today, his best-known works are the mezzotints that he created which so directly and eloquently capture the dramatic effects of his paintings in oil.
(1) This biography is derived from J. Dustin Wees, “Darkness Visible: The Prints of John Martin” (Williamstown, MA: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute) 2-4.
Note: Martin was the subject of "John Martin: Apocalypse" at the Tate Britain on view from November, 2011 to January, 2012.