John Atkinson Grimshaw was a British painter known for his portrayal of Victorian urban landscapes. Influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites, Grimshaw created beautiful color palettes that depicted nocturnal scenes in an endearing and atmospheric way. Despite not being as famous as his contemporaries, the English artist was admired by the likes of James Abbot McNeill Whistler. Although Grimshaw favored a more realistic approach, his focus was similar to the Impressionists, with landscapes and natural lighting being the primary motifs of his work.
John Atkinson Grimshaw, most commonly known as Atkinson Grimshaw, was born in September 1836 in Park Street, in the city of Leeds, England. He was the son of David Grimshaw and Mary Atkinson Grimshaw. His father worked as a policeman and later became an employee of a railway company.
In 1842, the Grimshaw family moved to Norwich. Atkinson, along with his brothers, attended the King Edward VI School. The institution was founded by the first Bishop of the city and was known for having disciplines focused on classical studies. Even though there is no certainty, probably the painter's first contact with the arts was there.
After six years in Norwich, the Grimshaws came back to Leeds. David Grimshaw was still working for the railway company and decided to open a family-run business: a grocery store. There, with the help of her sons, Mary Atkinson managed the place. When he was sixteen, John joined the same company, becoming a clerk. It's the same period in which he started painting en plein air.
Other than his practice of depicting his city's landscapes, Grimshaw's artistic vision stemmed from John Ruskin's writings. It was through him that the painter became aware of the Pre-Raphaelites. The luminescence of their paintings and the idyllic portrayal of nature captivated the young artist, elements that emerged later in his work.
Grimshaw married Frances Hubbard, his cousin, in 1856. Five years later, he decided to become a full-time artist for the disliking of his parents, Mary and David, mostly since this involved him leaving his position as a clerk at the Great Northern Railroad.
In 1862, a year after Grimshaw began his journey as an artist, he had his first art show with the help of Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society. Most works were still-life paintings of blossoms, fruits, and birds. The painter and Frances moved to a village in Headingley, Leeds.
The painter proceeded to observe his surroundings in this new neighborhood, in which abundant vegetation was present, making it a more comfortable environment for Grimshaw's and Hubbard's children. It seems they had around fifteen kids, even though most of them, unfortunately, died before they were adults.
Atkinson Grimshaw's work developed as did photography, a new medium that struck people with excitement, disbelief, or a mixture of both. On the one hand, photography liberated painting from searching a naturalist aspect, but on the other, it aided some painters by replacing their preliminary sketches with photographic references. The latter was the artist's case, as he used photography from the mid-1860s until the end of the decade when he decided to compose by imagination and observation.
In those years, Grimshaw painted his first moonlight scenes and nighttime urban landscapes. Images of docks and the streets of Leeds appear throughout these years, in the highly aestheticized and atmospheric style from which he became famous. A beautiful example of this production is his oil on canvas Moonlight After Rain.
By the 1870s, Grimshaw already achieved significant success as a painter in the art world. During this time, he had a second home in Scarborough, a location that became his passion. Although he became successful for his art during his lifetime, he didn't earn the recognition he deserved, having a somewhat limited general audience and patronage for his work. He ultimately became best known for his radiant night townscapes and landscapes.
The artist was precise with his color schemes while painting landscapes, ensuring proper lighting and a realistic depiction. Although he worked with realism - a polemic subject in which some artists and theorists despised realistic approaches - the painter was worried about the search for an atmospheric quality.
He would also enjoy defining seasons in his landscapes. Most of these traits were a consequence of his primary influence; the Pre-Raphaelites. Grimshaw portrayed many night views of Liverpool, London, Hull, as well as Glasgow. Before settling on his name as we know it today, he would sign his first works his full name, as "JAG," or "J.A. Grimshaw."
Grimshaw painted most of his interior scenes in the 1870s. In 1885, he completed one of his masterpieces entitled Dulce Domum, where he captured the essence of the sitter and even the music in the environment. His growing interest in interior scenes was due to Aestheticism and the Realist artist James Tissot. The Aesthetic movement was intellectually driven and value more the aesthetic side of art.
By the end of his career, his nightscapes were the most famous works among his patrons. These urban scenes were depicted with many light sources of different tonalities, like the moonlight, the streetlights, and window lights.
During this period, the artist also created paintings portraying ancient Roman and Greek empires. He was very passionate about literature, depicting subjects from Tennyson's and Longfellow's work, like The Lady of Shalott and Elaine. Grimshaw was so inspired by Tennyson's poems that, in homage, he names his children after his characters.
The painter started his own studio near the Impressionist artist Whistler's studio in Chelsea, London. Whistler was surprised at Grimshaw's nighttime scenes and stated he was just as good as him, if not better, as he gave his poetic view on England during the late Victorian industrial era. He was able to incorporate the dirty and dark side of industrial cities, but always with a sense of poetry and sensibility.
The artist died of tuberculosis in October 1893 at the age of 57, in Leeds. His children continued in his footsteps and became painters as well, like Arthur E. Grimshaw. There is little documentation left of the artist, and also no journals or letters.
Still, there is a large body of Impressionistic masterpieces that mark his legacy as one of the most important painters of his time. His artwork continued to grow in popularity after his death. By the late 1950s, there was a revival of Modern artists in London exhibits, which put Victorian art in the spotlight, especially Grimshaw's work.