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Art History: the Religious Paintings or Prints of John Martin

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Martin, the most popular painter of his day, specialised in vast canvases of the ancient world in chaos

Neglected for decades, his spectacular art is regarded highly once more.

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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. 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.

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Penelope Curtis, Director of Tate Britain, identifies a showmanship, which parallels, “the increasingly spectacular nature of our own time and the ways in which it is presented to us. Martin was an artist who exhibited his own art, much as Damien Hirst did in the 1990s, and who made money from its reproduction. His motives, however, were not merely commercial, for he wanted to draw people’s attention to what he had to say”

Born in Northumberland in July 1789, Martin trained as an ornamental painter. He moved to London in 1806 where he worked as a painter of glass and ceramics as well as a drawing teacher before embarking on a career dedicated to original and visionary work. As early as 1861, Martin’s promoters were claiming that his pictures had already been seen by eight million people.

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Summing up, the three – The Great Day of His Wrath, The Last Judgment and The Plains of Heaven – brought worldwide fame as they toured the US and Australia. Martin was never honoured by his own country, although the king of Belgium made him a knight, the tsar of Russia gave him a medal and the king of France gave him some Sèvres porcelain.

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Penelope Curtis, Foreword, John Martin: Apocalypse, ed. by Martin Myrone, (London, Tate Publishing, 2011) p.6

Myrone, ‘John Martin: art, taste and the spectacle of culture’. Ibid, p.12.

William Feaver, quoted by Lars Kokkonen, ‘The prophet motive? John Martin as a civil engineer’, ibid, p.35.

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