Regency Brothers – the Painter

Like his other Regency brothers, John Martin (1789 – 1854) strove to break away from his lower-class background and achieve the notice of the ton.

It seemed he had done so when his drawings became much admired by the Princess Charlotte and the Earl of Warwick. However, the former was not known for her taste in art. Despite having taken out a patent for soap, which the Royal Navy found useful as it would not curdle in sea water, his lordship lived in “penury, mortification and wretchedness.”

John was already supporting his older brother William, another tinker of limited success.

John Martin - from A Memoir

John Martin – from A Memoir

What he needed was a well-heeled patron. Drawings and sepia painting on teacups was only a scrambling sort of business.In order to attract such attention, he would have to break out of the current mold of Romantic painters. Constable and others were producing pastoral landscape themes which characterized a good deal of painting during the Regency. John decided to incorporate his father’s thundering Old Testament discourse, and took the “Picturesque” movement in a whole new direction.

Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion was submitted to the Royal Academy in 1812 for display at Somerset House. When the painting arrived, there was some confusion as to which end of the canvas was the top of the painting. For all the initial difficult it posed in the hanging, Sadak was completely ignored. Dejected, John took it away–one has to believe he carried it upside down. Once in his modest lodgings, he saw a calling card had been left in the dingy foyer. It was from a well-connected Governor of the Bank of England, William Manning, and he wanted to purchase the canvas.

As an amusing aside, John’s new patron was also the MP for Plympton Erle. His seat had been previously occupied by the unpopular Earl of Carhampton. This Irish peer had the indignity of reading his own death notice in the paper. Incensed, he demanded it be withdrawn. The paper complied, under the prominent headline, Public Disappointment.

Manning not only replaced an unpopular peer–his purchase encouraged John to continue his theme of vast, wild nature. In these works, appropriately titled Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still upon Gibeon and Fall of Babylon, humans were rendered insignificant beneath glowering clouds. It was called Sublime.

Critics called it bombastic, the worst sort of populist art.

However, the Regency period was experiencing not just a sea change in the style of its arts, but in the nature of the audience. By the time John’s Belshazzar’s Feast was to be exhibited at the British Institution, he had aroused not only the interest of Whig politicians and the Duke of Buckingham, his work was now commanding the attention of the masses. Feast could not be displayed in intimate, hushed surroundings, to be admired only by the wealthy and privileged. A railing had to be erected, to protect the massive painting from the crowds that came to view it.

Even now John Martin’s paintings command astonishment and awe. Just watch this clip from the Tate Britain’s Museum. It had recently exhibited John’s work, entitled Apocalypse.

Does his work seem familiar? Rock bands use his work for their album covers. Movie makers incorporate his vision in theirs.

Bombastic, perhaps. But altogether unforgettable.

John Martin's Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion (1812)

John Martin’s Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion (1812)

Regency painters – Part One

Oath of the Horatii - Jaques-Louis David, 1784

At the time of my story Notorious Match, painting, along with the other fine arts, was transitioning toward Romanticism.  Think Turner and Constable.  In the next few posts, the blog will concentrate on painters of the Regency period and how their visual interpretation of subjects greatly affected their audience in England.

Neo-Classicism was in full force by the time of the Regency in England.  Paintings were eschewing the rococo manner so beloved by the ancienne regime to become more commonly executed in a formal, restrained manner, using classical subjects ranging from mythological figures to Corinthian columns.

Like previous styles of painting, and future ones to come, neo-Classicism was eventually taken over by the political movement of the times.  At the height of his power, Napoleon discovered an affinity for the symmetric, incisive nature of the classical heroic movement and used it to demonstrate his own personal power and that of the Republic.

He chose for his portrait painter Jacques-Louis David, a major contributor to the stylistic painting of this period both in France and England.  David had rejected the earlier passion for indolent aristocrats riding beribboned swings, pursuing love and other nonsense among flowers.  He hated rococo, you see. So much better to paint great gods of Olympus and sturdy mortals of Rome imposing order by sword and mighty oaths.

By Jove, it makes one want to get to one’s bootmaker and demand a pair of dashed sandals.

David was an ardent supporter of the French Revolution and had been favored by Citizen Robespierre, before the fellow got himself guillotined.

Napoleon at the St. Bernard Pass - 1801

It was David who executed the famous, but dreary pencil sketch of a grim Marie Antoinette awaiting Madame La Guillotine.  He voted as a member of the General Assembly to have Louis XVI executed.  It was alleged he participated in the death of the young dauphin after the boy was forced to testify against his mother on several crimes, including incest, to secure her execution.

It was not as easy to execute women in those days, you see.

One of David’s great friends was the revolutionary Paul Murat, an architect of the Terror.  The artist was so distraught when Murat was found murdered in his bath, he painted one of art’s great masterpieces, immortalizing him and the revolutionary for all time.

“(It was) a moving testimony to what can be achieved when an artist’s political convictions are directly manifested in his work.”  Boime, Albert (1987), Social History of Modern Art: Art in the Age of Revolution, 1750-1800 volume 1, Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, ISBN

Napoleon commissioned David to create the giant Coronation mural as well as the famous Marengo painting (above).  The painter died an exile from France after Napoleon’s defeat, run over by a carriage.

From Notorious Match:

Diana asked Griffin about his family.

“My father left Wales for France after some scandal,” he told her.  “A scandal I’m sure your grandmother, Lady Nellie, can better explain than I.  In any case, I never knew him.  He married my mother, the daughter of a minor noble, but left her for Paris after I was born.”

“Who raised you?” Diana probed.

“Mostly my grandfather.   My mother was killed when I was ten.  During the Revolution.”

Diana’s eyes widened.  “Oh, Griffin.  Was she—”

“No, she was not a victim of Madame la Guillotine,” he explained, matter-of-factly.   “Instead, my mother was hung.  For conspiring to murder the revolutionary Jean-Paul Murat.”

“Good God.  Wasn’t it Charlotte Corday who stabbed him in his bath?  The one they call the Angel of Assassination?”

Griffin nodded.  “My mother and Charlotte were schoolmates in Caen.  When Charlotte was arrested for killing Murat, my mother went to Paris to beg for her freedom.  She was warned to stay away on penalty of death.  But she could not.  It seemed incomprehensible to her, you see, that her beloved friend should be executed for killing one man to save one hundred thousand.”

The Death of Murat, 1793