The Corresponence of James McNeil Whistler
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John Martin, 1789-1854

Nationality: English
Date of Birth: 1789.07.17
Place of Birth: Haydon Bridge
Date of Death: 1854.02.17
Place of Death:


John Martin was a Romantic history and landscape painter and printmaker. He had a brother Jonathan who was insane and attempted to burn down York Minster.


Martin, nicknamed 'Mad Martin', studied under the Italian painter Boniface Moss (Musso). His first oils were classical in subject matter and small in scale and were influenced by old masters such as Claude Lorraine and by the paintings of his contemporary Turner. He made his début at the Royal Academy in 1811.

Martin's mature paintings were massive and visionary, inspired by biblical and classical themes and typically depicting tiny figures within in a sublime, dramatic landscape, for example, Adam's First Sight of Eve (1812; Glasgow Museums and Art Gallery). They were hugely popular among the exhibition going public but were criticised by critics such as John Ruskin. Martin also painted a number of small landscapes of London in oil en plein-air, for example, Distant View of London (1815; Glasgow Museums and Art Gallery).

There was a running 'upside down' joke regarding JW's pictures which people felt were so far removed from reality that they made as much sense either way up. In 1878 a humorous story appeared in Mayfair about a picture by JW being hung upside down. In the Grasshopper at the Gaiety Theatre a painting by JW was turned up side down and made to serve as two pictures. Martin's vast paintings were discussed in a similar way and his Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion (exh. R.A. 1812; Art Museum, St Louis), with its landscape focus, miniscule treatment of humanity and lack of traditional narrative emphasis, was apparently hung upside down.

Like JW, Martin was also interested in print making. His seven etchings, Characters of Trees, were published in London in 1817. He often made mezzotints after his paintings, and publishing series of engravings such as Paradise Lost (1827) and Illustrations to the Bible (1831-1835).


'Mr John Martin', Illustrated London News, 17 March 1849, p. 176; Bénézit, E., Dictionnaire des Peintres, Sculpteurs, Dessinateurs et Graveurs, 8 vols, Paris, 1956-61; Wood, Christopher, Dictionary of Victorian Artists, Woodbridge, 1971; Feaver, W., The Art of John Martin, Oxford, 1975; Campbell, M., John Martin: Visionary Printmaker, York City Art Gallery, 1992; Hamlyn, Robin, 'John Martin', The Grove Dictionary of Art Online, ed. L. Macy, (accessed 8 December 2003).