If, like me, you have had access to the same art museum for several years, you have likely developed favorites — works you look forward to seeing again and again as you return to the museum.
For me one of these has been a painting in the Philadelphia Museum of Art titled Liverpool from Wapping (images above, top, with detail, second down) by Victorian painter John Atkinson Grimshaw.
The wonderfully atmospheric portrayal of misty twilight along the docks and the warm glow of gaslit windows reflected in wet sidewalks and the grimy slick of the streets captures my attention whenever I walk into the gallery where is hangs. (For some reason, this painting seems to be missing from the museum’s online collection database, though it has been in the museum for as long as I can remember. There are versions here and here, but the color is off in these and most reproductions I’ve seen of this painting. The photos at top are my own, and there is a bit of reflected light in the first one.)
Early on my fascination with this painting encouraged me to look up Grimshaw and find, to my delight, that it was not an anomaly but representative of much of his work. Though he also painted figures, room interiors, other landscape subjects and even fairy pictures, his most frequent themes were docks, towns, streets and rural lanes in misty, rainy, nighttime and low-light conditions.
In these compositions, he utilized a controlled, muted palette and low range of values over most of the image, with a highlighted area of brighter intensity, often the moon or a fog-bound sun, along with the reflected light it projected on wet surfaces. He frequently included a lone, often sihlouetted figure.
Grimshaw’s earliest works showed the distinct influence of landscapes by Pre-Raphaelite painters like William Holman Hunt, Ford Maddox Brown and Sir John Everett Millais, but even early on, he evidenced a fascination with moonlight, mist and fog.
At the end of his career, Grimshaw was experimenting with seascapes in a manner influenced by the French Impressionists, but his own style and subject matter made up the mainstay of his work.
He did not exhibit often, preferring to paint for private patrons, but his work was in demand, and was forged as well as imitated by other artists during his lifetime. He would eventually use just “Atkinson Grimshaw” as his working name, and you will find him commonly referenced that way.
There is an exhibition of Grimshaw’s work, Atkinson Grimshaw, Painter of Moonlight, which is the first major retrospective in 60 years, at the Guild Hall Art Gallery in London, UK, that runs until 15 January, 2012.
Unfortunately it doesn’t appear a catalog has been published to accompany the exhibit, and the only major print collection I’m aware of, Atkinson Grimshaw by Alexander Robertson, is out of print though it may be found used. [Addendum: Readers have been kind enough to inform us that there is a catalog, please see this post’s comments.}
Grimshaw’s studio in the Chelsea section of London was near that of James Abbott McNeill Whistler, who reportedly said of Grimshaw, “I considered myself the inventor of Nocturnes until I saw [his] moonlit pictures”.