Martin was born near Hexham, Northumberland. He was apprenticed first to an heraldic coach painter in Newcastle, and then to a china painter with whom he came to London in 1806. He exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1811, and at the British Institution, where he won premiums in 1817 and 1821. He designed various urban improvements for London, and painted some landscapes of the Thames Valley. He became paralysed in 1853 and died in Douglas, Isle of Man.
Martin is best-known as a painter of religious subjects and fantastic compositions. His paintings, typically vast landscapes and cityscapes peopled with a myriad of tiny figures, enjoyed great success, as did the engravings made from them. Among his principal pictures are Belshazzar's Feast (Tate Gallery T04896), The Last Judgement (Tate Gallery T01927), The Plains of Heaven (Tate Gallery T01928) and The Great Day of His Wrath (Tate Gallery N05613). Several of these were engraved by Martin himself. The engravings of The Deluge (1837) and two others were presented by the French Academy to Louis Phillippe who ordered a special medal to be struck and sent to Martin as a token of esteem. After the Belgian government bought The Fall of Ninevah, the Belgian Academy made Martin a member and the King of Belgium created him a Knight of the Order of Leopold.
William Feaver, The Art of John Martin, Oxford 1975
John Martin (19 July 1789 – 17 February 1854) was an English Romantic painter, engraver and illustrator. He was celebrated for his typically vast and melodramatic paintings of religious subjects and fantastic compositions, populated with minute figures placed in imposing landscapes. Martin's paintings, and the engravings made from them, enjoyed great success with the general public—in 1821 Thomas Lawrence referred to him as "the most popular painter of his day"—but were lambasted by John Ruskin and other critics.
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