A Master of Moonlight: John Atkinson Grimshaw
A Master of Moonlight
John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836 – 1893) was a British landscape painter during the Romanticist, Symbolist, and Impressionist periods. He is most noted for his nocturnal urban landscapes accompanied by clever use of moonlight. This adaptation of light both illuminated and magnified the inherent beauty found within the scene in which he painted.
Grimshaw was different from many of his contemporaries in several ways. For starters, he preferred to paint in a classic, realistic way when abstract art movements such as Impressionism and Expressionism were beginning to gain popularity in the mainstream.
Grimshaw was also a keen proponent of Aestheticism, which favored depicting beauty over meaning and appearances over substance. This, accompanied by the use of tools such as the ‘camera obscura’ and lenses, resulted in some of the finest landscape paintings ever produced and bestowed Grimshaw with the title of “Master of the light of night.”
A Moonlit Lane (1874)
Like many great artists, John Atkinson Grimshaw’s painting was initially met with criticism and scrutiny. Critics bashed Grimshaw’s paintings on slight imperfections and the fact that he was an artist who did things unconventionally compared to other painters of the time.
However, like many of the greatest painters, Grimshaw was ahead of his time. Grimshaw was an avid fan of the newly invented camera, and photography was another passion of his. This passion greatly influenced his style and realistic approach to painting at a time when artists had long turned away from that particular aim.
Despite the emphasis on Realism, Grimshaw still managed to convey a strong feeling of emotion that any Symbolist or Impressionist painter would be proud of. For example, in the painting of the Moonlit Lane, Grimshaw captures all night’s haunting beauty and romantic stillness. This perfection of nocturnal narration remained a prominent theme in his artwork.
In Peril (The Harbor Flare) (1879)
The Harbor Flare is perhaps the best example of Grimshaw’s ability to capture the aesthetic dramatism and beauty a rich nighttime scene can convey. It holds within the canvas three critical components of a good narrative piece, the glory of nature, human tribulation, and an element of danger.
It also holds three elements Grimshaw is most famous for, i.e., cityscapes, nightscapes, and the light of the moon as the centerpiece of the painting. In the painting, a group gathers by the harbor under the light of a fire and the moon.
The fire is lit to guide shipping vessels safely back to land on stormy nights. There is a beautifully poetic contrast contained within the piece. On the one hand, there is an impression of oncoming danger and potential tragedy, while simultaneously, a sense of serenity and calmness is also conveyed. Genuinely fantastic stuff indeed.
Nightfall on the Thames (1880)
The Nightfall on the Thames is comparable in quality and majesty to Monet’s Impression Sunrise masterpiece or any other notable seascape or marine art of the time. Moreover, it is an emotionally moving painting that inspires feelings of a deep appreciation for life.
The similarities to Monet’s Impression Sunrise cannot be denied, and the French artist’s magnificent painting undoubtedly influenced Grimshaw here. However, it is by far Grimshaw’s most aesthetically Impressionist painting, and many critics have stated that it is also his best.
Although more Impressionist in composition, it still retains much Realism compared to works of other Impressionist painters. This seamless blending of style and tone results in a uniquely beautiful piece. Marine art was popular during this period, and you would do well to find a painting on the subject better than Nightfall on the Thames.
A Lane in Headingley, Leeds (1881)
A Lane in Headingley continues the narrative of moonlit treetop paintings Grimshaw was so personally interested in. It is similar in composition and theme to that of a Moonlit Lane and would be followed up with another similar painting the following year, simply titled Moonlight.
All of Grimshaw’s favorite troupes return in this eerily moving masterpiece. The moon again takes center stage and provides the rest of the scene with light and life. Grimshaw’s ability to express twilight’s beauty is again on display here.
In the painting, a lone figure walks a quiet road under the moon’s waning and imposingly dark, creeping trees. The misty feeling in the air beautifully embodies and exemplifies the spirit of the Victorian England period as a whole.
Battersea Bridge (1885)
Another one of Grimshaw’s finest and most famous paintings, Battersea Bridge at the hours of darkness, stands out among Grimshaw’s other works despite being similar in tone. Battersea Bridge is Located in London, England, and has been an icon of the city for centuries.
In Grimshaw’s prolific painting, the moon plays the lead role as its light bounces off everything else visually. Although silent and still, the sky teems with a profound sense of aliveness and invokes a feeling of life in the bridge itself and the water below.
Two solitary figures stand nearby, admiring the magnificence of the moonlit scene in front of them, another common theme in Grimshaw’s art. The painting is comparable to Van Gogh’s masterpiece, Starry Night Over the Rhone, although Grimshaw’s painting retains a grounding of Realism not present in Van Gogh’s work.
For John Atkinson Grimshaw, the night was alive in a way that most people cannot comprehend. To him, the moon and the light embodied all the beauty life has to offer. These are just a few examples of Grimshaw’s terrific artwork, be sure to check out his other epic night paintings whenever you get the chance.
At the end of this discussion I hope you understand better about A Master of Moonlight: John Atkinson Grimshaw