Exhibition: Creation of light. John Martin - Bilbao Fine Arts Museum


2006-07-17 • 2006-10-01

Creation of light. John Martin

Campbell Collection

Room 33

Since 2005 and thanks to the sponsorship of the BANCAJA FOUNDATION, THE PAPER ART programmehas lent stability to one of the Museum's exhibition lines, the intention of which is to give value to works on paper which cannot be exhibited permanently as this medium is particularly sensitive to light and the environmental variations caused by humidity and temperature. With this in mind, works from the Museum's collection and that of other institutions are exhibited periodically. 

On this occasion, we present the first monograph in our country dedicated to the English painter and engraver, John Martin(Haydon Bridge, Northumberland, 1789–Douglas, Isle of Man, 1854), organized by the Calcografía Nacional, with the collaboration of the Conde Duque Cultural Centre of the Town Hall of Madrid and the Bilbao Art Museum. The exhibition shows the creative evolution of the artist through a selection of sixty six engravings and water colours belonging to the collector who is also an expert on the works of John Martin and Michael J. Campbell.

John Martin is one of the most outstanding romanticist artists and one of the foremost exponents of the aesthetics of the sublime, which seeks to arouse the viewer's emotions through the representation of the supernatural and the unbridled power of nature. He succeeded in capturing this concept in his painting and especially in his engravings thanks to his command of the mezzotint technique – an engraving technique which, with intense black as its base makes the whites of the shapes and objects stand out with very precise touches of light. In this way, the resulting print has a general appearance of darkness with intense blacks, delicate transitions of contrasting lights and darks and soft tonal effects.

John Martin's work became widely recognised thanks to his engravings with architecture and landscapes and especially his series based on episodes from the Bible and Paradise Lost by the English poet, John Milton (1608-74), of great complexity as far as composition was concerned and extraordinary technique. His scenography has many points in common with the engravings of classical ruins and architectural inventions of Piranesi and with the projects of visionary architects such as Boullé, Ledoux or Lequeu. Like them, John Martin was also a visionary concerned about town planning. 

In the 1830s he was almost ruined by his attempts to put into practice his ambitious plans to beautify parks and improve the transport system, water supply and sewers of London. However, it was not until many years after is death that some of his ideas were put into practice. 

The first part of the exhibition entitled Darkness visible. John Martin, 1789-1854 gathers together water colours, prints and a portrait of the artist. After a series of water colours inspired by 18th century Italian etchings of classical views and ruins, Types of Trees was John Martin's first graphic series and his first illustrated book. In the second series, Views from Sezincot House, he centred his attention on architectural studies of the lavish mansion of the same name and on landscapes from the surrounding area. Shortly afterwards, he learnt something which was to be decisive in his work – the technical procedure known as mezzotint, which defined his artistic personality when applied to themes from the Metamorphoses of Ovid –such as Pafo's arbour–and from the Bible,. 

The prints that John Martin produced to illustrate the poem, Paradise Lost by John Milton, made him very successful in the eyes of the general public and the critics and consolidated his career as an engraver. the setting of epic stories in grandiose surroundings determined the significance of the sublime in romantic art and also consolidated his style, which was soon to be adopted by other artists and imitators.  The culmination of his inventiveness and architectural imagination and one of the finest examples of the sublime in romantic art was  Balthasar's banquet. For this work, first as a painting and later as a series of engravings, he did a great deal of research, consulting biblical and mathematical texts, from which he obtained perspectives and details of scenery which were represented with great accuracy. 

At the end of the twenties and the beginning of the thirties, he created some of his most famous works, which are regarded as masterpieces in the history of engravings. The most outstanding of these are The deluge –which was Martin's favourite work–, The fall of Níniveh and Satan presiding at the Infernal Council. In these works, the grandeur of the scenery and the dramatic effect of light and shade are achieved by his extraordinary command of the mezzotint technique. 

En 1830, John Martin undertook the illustration of the Bible. He successfully produced several prints but the high price of the edition forced him to abandon this ambitious project. Perhaps it was for this reason that towards the end of his career he did engravings of numerous biblical themes, such as The crucifixion, Sadak in search of the waters of oblivion or The Final Judgement.

All of John Martin's work shows a poetic vision and imaginative content, which make him one of the most exceptional representatives of the aesthetics of the sublime in romanticism.


John Martin (Haydon Bridge, 1789 - Douglas, Isle of Man, 1854)
The Fall of Babylon, 1831
Mezzotint with etching, 59 x 81 cm