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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Mad Martin's Biblical Art United in U.S.

NEW HAVEN, Connecticut -- The English are famous for their eccentric artists and writers. Coleridge with his opium. Cowper with his cats. Blake, the visionary who talked to the angels he drew. Samuel Palmer, the mystical landscapist whose fruit trees glow like lamps.

And then there was John Martin (1789-1854), Mad Martin, as he was known. An artist, inventor and engineer, largely self-taught, he began his career as a humble decorator of ceramics and ended up designing a sewer system for the city of London and producing colossal paintings of biblical disasters and final days.

He wasn't insane at all, though two of his brothers were (one walked the streets of Newcastle wearing a tortoise shell for a hat and proclaiming himself "philosophical conqueror of all nations''; the other set fire to York Cathedral).

In fact, Martin wasn't even particularly unworldly.

He networked tirelessly in the London art world and exhibited at the Royal Academy and other first-tier galleries to tumultuous, though by no means unanimous, acclaim. (Sir Thomas Lawrence declared him "the most popular painter of the day''; John Ruskin dismissed him as an opportunistic hack.)

He was knighted by King Leopold of Belgium, and Prince Albert, the British royal consort, was among his ardent fans.

It was Albert's patronage that was responsible for inspiring one of Martin's most grandiose achievements, his series of three king-sized paintings on the theme of the biblical flood.

Martin had completed "The Deluge,'' based on the account in the biblical book of Genesis, in 1834.

Albert saw the work in the studio and commissioned a companion piece, "The Eve of the Deluge,'' for the Royal Collection, then persuaded Lady Harriet Howard, mistress of the robes to Queen Victoria, to order another, "The Assuaging of the Waters.''

The artist complied and produced what amounted to an apocalyptic miniseries on canvas, a before, during and after account of the world destroyed and restored. Although he intended the three works to be exhibited together, that proved impossible. Albert's painting disappeared into his dressing room at Buckingham Palace, Lady Howard's to her private collection at Stafford House.

This year, however, Martin's wish for an ensemble presentation has finally come true, not in England but in the United States.

The Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, which owns "The Assuaging of the Waters,'' has brought all three pieces together -- "The Deluge'' from the Yale Center for British Art here and "The Eve of the Deluge'' from the British Royal Collection (it hangs in Kensington Palace) -- in an exhibition titled "John Martin: Visions of the Biblical Flood.''

The show, organized by Lynn Federle Orr in San Francisco, opens in New Haven on Wednesday and remains through Nov. 30.

It will surely have no trouble holding the attention.

The works measure 2 to 2 1/2 meters across and everything about them -- from their shrewdly paced narrative, to their preposterous depictions of spatial heights and depths -- is intended to offer a total immersion experience.

With Martin, contrast is everything. Landscapes are huge; figures are small. Lighting effects are shamelessly, melodramatically bright or dark.

"The Eve of the Deluge,'' set in a parched landscape in the desert, has a low-wattage sunset sheen.

The centerpiece, "Deluge,'' a vertiginous, white-flecked swirl of nighttime sky, is painted a suffocating mahogany-brown.

The "Assuaging of the Waters,'' with its pink sky and glassy sea, has the hallucinogenic prettiness of a travel ad.

In this last painting, Martin's penchant for symbols is apparent.

Some are religious: A drowned serpent wrapped around a ruined tree in the foreground is a reminder of the original sin that caused the flood.

Others are scientific: Exotic shells and sea creatures trapped in a tidal pool suggest theories of the history of the world in the early 19th century, when the fossils of extinct species were read as paleontological proof that the flood had actually taken place.

This reconciliation of science and revelation helps explain why Martin's work caused a sensation when it did.

His images of violence and sublimity rendered in a technique of seamless, lacquered precision were just the thing for a time when a veneer of faith in religion, social perfectibility and the benignity of science was starting to buckle and crack.

Martin's paintings, with their banality and bombast, caught the anxious thrill of that transitional moment.

But his fame didn't last. His efforts to have his engineering schemes -- including his sewer system -- realized, brought him to the edge of bankruptcy.

His paintings, never best sellers for all the attention they got, went out of vogue.