John Martin

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Considered a legitimate rival of Turner, John Martin in the mid-19th century was among the most famous artists in Europe. His work was known to and influenced the art of numerous contemporaries, including Thomas Cole, Victor Hugo, and Hector Berlioz. While his initial renown derived from large, dramatic canvases exhibited officially in the 1820's, it was through his mezzotint prints that he became widely popular.

In 1824 Martin was commissioned to do a series of 24 large plates illustrating Milton's Paradise Lost, the first of which were so impressive that he was almost immediately commissioned to do a smaller set of the same, all 48 plates being completed in a little over two years. Unlike previous illustrators of the epic, Martin devised original subjects which, with scarcely any preliminary sketching, he incised directly on steel plates. His technical achievement in this was noted in The Illustrated London News: "Of no other artists can it be said that they were equally excellent as painters and engravers."

Martin created his images specifically for mezzotint, which, offering a complete tonal range, permitted extraordinary effects of scale and dramatic light. Combining the most meticulously detailed architecture with boldly conceived scenes of the underworld, Martin succeeded as no artist before him in rendering a physical description of hell and, to a lesser extent (as in Milton) heaven. In the words of his most recent biographer, William Feaver, "It is difficult to imagine the Bridge over Chaos in any form but mezzotint."

After his huge success in the mid-19th century, which led to numerous reprintings of all his plates and even more numerous works based on them by other artists, Martin fell into such total oblivion by the early 20th century that some of his most important canvases were sold at public auction, literally, for a few pounds. The past several decades have seen his reputation re-established, with a number of major exhibitions, books, and rapidly rising prices on the market.

See October 12, 1986 New York Times Critics' Choices Review

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