John Martin was born in 1789, the son of a humble farm laborer. At 14, Martin began an apprenticeship to a coach builder to learn how to paint heralds of arms. At 15, he started studying under an Italian painter, and started painting china. At 23, Martin struck out on his own to paint mythological and biblical scenes. Not long after turning 30, Martin was a superstar. Crowds coming to see his painting Belshazzar's Feast had to be kept behind a railing to protect the painting. Other hit paintings included The Fall of Nineveh. In Deluge, a painting about the biblical flood, Martin captured the anguish of the damned left behind to drown.
Despite his popular appeal, Martin never enjoyed acceptance from England's artistic community, nor did he gain admittance to the Royal Academy, which he wanted all his life. Unlike adoring crowds, who sensed "a spirit . . . not of the world," many contemporaries disdained his dramatic style. Others claimed he captured on canvas the experience of intoxication brought on by opium. His characteristic apocalyptic style was termed "Martinesque." Partly due to being confused with a mentally ill brother (Jonathan) who burned York Minster, the painter was even nicknamed "Mad Martin."
Martin's paintings might look like the work of a passionately religious person but according to biographer Max Adams, Martin was a skeptic who often employed painting to obliquely criticize the hubris of contemporary public figures. Belshazzar's Feast, for example, was a "a thinly disguised libel on the self-same Prince Regent made more potent by his coronation as George IV and the grotesque accompanying feast." (Hiding behind painting was a shrewd idea considering some of Martin's more outspoken friends wound up in jail.) Martin had an impressive ability to depict worlds undergoing irreversible change, Adams argues, and even more importantly, the artist hoped to be an agent of change. The man mistaken as "Mad Martin" designed a new sewage system for London and even envisioned something like the London Underground.
As for Martin's paintings, part of his popular appeal stemmed from developments in — and his mastery of — mezzotint engravings. Those who couldn't easily see his original paintings in London had access to affordable prints.
Nineteenth-century paleontologists weren't stupid. They knew how to capitalize on fame, even someone else's. The result was that John Martin, who in the 1820s devoted his work to a literal interpretation of the Bible (not a view he necessarily shared), forged into deep time in the 1830s. He illustrated the frontispieces for a variety of popular publications, by George Richardson, Thomas Hawkins and (as shown on this page) Gideon Mantell. Martin brought the same apocalyptic mood to dinosaur pictures as he did to everything else. The results were dragon-like dinosaurs with bulging eyes and contorted necks, doing perpetual battle with each other. The same characteristics of Martin's work that made him a sought-after illustrator for books written for the public made other scientists wary of him. When writing academic papers for each other, many scientists chose more restrained, accurate illustrators who would produce more realistic depictions. But crowds still got goose bumps from pictures by Martin.
Narrative text and graphic design © by Michon Scott - Updated April 24, 2014