Lines and Colors art blog

John Martin
I occasionally make the assertion, in my posts about artists like Jan van Eyck, Antonello da Messina, Albrecht Altdorfer and Matthias Grünewald, that prior to the modern era of motion pictures, artists at various times were the special effects wizards of their day — dazzling those who viewed their works with displays of technical virtuosity, monumental scale and dramatic scenes of exotic landscapes, catastrophic events, and vivid imaginings.

A stellar case in point is John Martin, a romantic painter active in the first half of the 19th Century, who was unabashed in his efforts to wow audiences with his large scale paintings of Biblical and literary events.

His paintings were in a way more artistic versions of “dioramas” or “panoramas”, staged at the time as popular entertainments, that utilized images painted on large cloths, theatrical lighting and sometimes props like potted plants, to amuse the public in a way that presaged movies. The diorama makers, in turn, copied Martin’s work, knowing a good thing to steal when they saw it.

Martin’s paintings are said to have been a significant influence on pioneering movie director D. W. Griffith, who sought to impress audiences with his moving scenes of great drama and catastrophe.

In the latter years of his career, Martin was working on a large scale triptych of Biblical scenes, The Last Judgement, The Great Day of His Wrath (image above, with details, large version here) and The Plains of Heaven.


8 responses to “John Martin”

  1. Ave,

    Regarding your comment: “artists at various times were the special effects wizards of their day”…

    You should check Oliver Grau’s “Virtual Art: From Illusion to Immersion” –

    Lot of interesting insights on the topic.


    1. Thanks, Nick. This looks quite interesting.

      For the benefit of other readers, the MIT Press pages linked in Nick’s comment include a downloadable PDF of the books Introduction. Here is the Amazon link for the book.

  2. Thanks for the links above and for this presentation of John Martin. I can well see the influence on D.W. Griffith and an association with J.M.W. Turner.

    The idea of immersion is intriguing – monumental scale is a big deal!

  3. That is so awesome. You can feel the heat and the ground shaking beneath your feet. Wow.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Nita.

      Other readers can see Nita Leland’s extensive color painting resources here.

  4. Thanks for posting. Love the drama, reminds me a little of Turner. Sadly the Internet seems to neglect him as I’m having trouble finding higher res shots.

    Does anyone have any recommendations for books?

    1. Thanks, Jeremy.

      Other readers can see Jeremy Deveratuda’s (Turner inspired) work here.

  5. D.W. Griffith and Turner, absolutely. But it occurred to me a while back while watching them on DVD that Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies are basically what all of 19th-century history painting strived to be: titanic, action-filled, world-encompassing.

    It’s hard to imagine Martin not loving them.