John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836 – 1893) was an English painter known mostly for his moonlit nocturne paintings. As James McNeill Whistler once said:
“I considered myself the inventor of nocturnes until I saw Grimmy’s moonlit pictures”.
In this post, you will learn more about his life and paintings. Just be mindful that he did not keep records, documents or journals other than paintings, so the information about his life is limited. I cover:
- He was born on 6 September 1836 in West Yorkshire, England.
- His signature changed from “JAG” to “J. A. Grimshaw” to “John Atkinson Grimshaw” after finally settling on “Atkinson Grimshaw”. I remember when I started painting, always being frustrated with my signature. I changed many times until I settled on the simple “D. Scott”.
- In 1856, he married his first cousin, Frances Hubbard.
- At the age of 24 in 1861, he resigned from his job as a clerk for the Great Northern Railway to become a fine artist. His parents did not approve of this path he chose, but looking back now, it seems he made the right decision.
- Despite being self-taught, he developed his skills rather quickly. He had his first exhibition in 1862 which featured mostly delicate still lifes like the one below.
- He gradually built a name for himself as an artist and was relatively successful by the 1870s; enough to afford renting a 17th-century mansion in Scarborough. He referred to it as Castle by the Sea, named after a poem by Henry Longfellow. Here is an extract from that poem that describes the location:
‘Hast thou seen that lordly castle,
That Castle by the Sea?
Golden and red above it
The clouds float gorgeously.
‘And fain it would stoop downward
To the mirrored wave below;
And fain it would soar upward
In the evening’s crimson glow.’
‘Well have I seen that castle,
That Castle by the Sea,
And the moon above it standing,
And the mist rise solemnly.’
‘The winds and the waves of ocean,
Had they a merry chime?
Didst thou hear, from those lofty chambers,
The harp and the minstrel’s rhyme?’
- The marine life at Castle by the Sea inspired some of Grimshaw’s best work, with many of his paintings from this time featuring ships, docks and sea, often under the soft moonlight of night.
- I have read that he lost three of his children before he moved to Castle by the Sea, but I have not been able to find any more information on this.
- He apparently went through some financial struggles around 1880 for unknown reasons.
- Toward the end of his art career, he started experimenting with different subjects and styles, even depicting fairies from time to time.
- He passed away from an illness in 1893.
A Closer Look at Some of Grimshaw’s Paintings
This is certainly my favorite painting by Grimshaw. In fact, the reason I wrote this post in the first place is because one of my readers sent me a photo of this painting, bringing Grimshaw’s work to my attention. The painting is named perfectly – Autumn Morning.
The rich yellow sky really jumps out from the canvas. Grimshaw’s attention to detail is also worth noting, especially for a self-taught artist. The building and the distant trees are tinted, which pushes them back in perspective.
Remember, as something recedes into the distance, it tends to take on the appearance of the surrounding atmosphere (known as atmospheric perspective). In this case, objects get lighter and closer to yellow.
Below is one of Grimshaw’s typical paintings; a street-lit urban scene with ambient moonlight in the background. In the sky, there is a beautiful and smooth gradation in color. It is interesting that Grimshaw used green for the moonlight, but it seems to work. There is a pleasing contrast between the green moonlight and the warm street lights around the bottom right.
There is hardly any hue contrast in the painting below; it is basically a monochrome painting done with different shades of yellow. Grimshaw relied almost entirely on value contrast, from the strong light of the moon to the dark silhouettes of the boats and figures. Also, notice how the silhouettes get progressively lighter as they recede into the distance. This helps create depth in the painting.
The name of this painting, lovers is important to note. Without knowing the name, you might overlook the tight embrace of two lovers in the quiet street. As with many of Grimshaw’s paintings, he used a rich yellow to depict light which is hitting the path. It looks like he used a scumbling technique to drag yellow paint over a dark underpainting.
Below is one of Grimshaw’s sunlit paintings, featuring a lady in a colorful garden. Notice how less gray is used and the increased level of clarity compared to the other paintings in this post.
The painting appears to have been created whilst Grimshaw was living at the Castle by the Sea between 1876 to 1879, so one might assume that the building in this painting is based on the Castle by the Sea. But I am just speculating.
What is interesting about the painting below is the tilted-up vantage point. This draws attention to the dramatic sky. Notice the contrast between the organic shapes in the sky and the rigid, geometric shapes used for the buildings, road, cart, etc. The dark figures also provide interesting points of sharp value contrast around the painting.
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