Born at Haydon Bridge, near Hexham, Northumberland, John Martin was apprenticed to a coachmaker in Newcastle upon Tyne shortly after his parents moved there. In 1804, he became a pupil of Boniface Moss or Musso, an Italian painter originally from Piemonte, who gave him lessons in drawing and painting. Having moved to London in 1806, to work with Musso’s son, he first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1812 after a struggling six years in London selling drawings of views of his native Northumberland and working for William Collins, who owned a well-established glass-painting studio in the Strand. Here he spent the hours after work sitting up at night till 2 or 3 o’clock … acquiring that knowledge of perspective which has since been so valuable to me.
More famous than Turner or Constable in his day, John Martin was the superstar of his generation. Not only was he to become the ‘Grandfather’ of the Hudson River School, at whose feet Thomas Cole sat in wonder, but also the ‘Grandfather of Hollywood’, as D W Griffiths drew heavily on his images for his sets. He based scenes for Intolerance, 1916, arguably the most eminent of all the silent movies, on John Martin’s mezzotints. Subsequently Cecil B de Mille also drew from the images of John Martin, although the main influence on his ‘epics’ was from the Roman scenes of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema.
In the 1840’s Martin’s landscapes softened into haze around the margins so as to lie at ease on the paper, they invite the onlooker to become absorbed, by almost imperceptible degrees, into the central and fully formulated area of each composition. (1)
(1) William Feaver, The Art of John Martin, Oxford University Press 1975, page 154
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