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John Atkinson Grimshaw, most commonly known as Atkinson Grimshaw, was born on September 1836 in Park Street, in the city of Leeds, England. There isn’t much information about his childhood. 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, especially since this involved him leaving his position as a clerk at the Great Northern Railroad. In 1862, a year after he began his journey as an artist, Grimshaw had his first art exhibit sponsored by Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society, and most works were still life paintings of blossoms, fruits, and birds. He and Frances moved to a village in Headingley, Leeds.
By the 1870s, he had already made a name for himself as a successful 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 amount of recognition he deserved, having somewhat limited general audience and patronage for his work. But his artwork continued to grow in popularity after his death. In fact, 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. He is best known for his radiant night townscapes and landscapes.
The artist was precise with his color schemes while painting landscapes, ensuring accurate lighting and a realistic depiction. Although he worked with realism - a characteristic that was criticized by some artists of the time - the painter assured to transcribe the mood of the scene as well. He would also enjoy defining seasons in his landscapes. Most of these traits were a consequence of his main 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.”
Although Grimshaw painted most of his interior scenes by the 1870s, in 1855 he completed one of his masterpieces entitled Dulce Domum, where he captures the essence of the sitter as well as the music in the environment. His growing interest in interior scenes was due to the influence of the Aestheticism and the Realist artist James Tissot. The Aesthetic movement was intellectually driven and, like the name states, value more the aesthetic side of art.
By the end of his career, the most popular works among his patrons were his night cityscapes; urban scenes with many light sources of different tonalities, like the moonlight, the streetlights, as well as 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 began a studio near where the Impressionist artist, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, had his, in Chelsea, London. Whistler was surprised at Grimshaw’s nighttime scenes and stated he was just as good as him on the theme, 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. Many of his children continued in his footsteps and became painters as well, like Arthur E. Grimshaw. There is no documentation left of the artist, and also no journals or letters, but there is a large body of Impressionistic masterpieces that mark his legacy as one of the most important painters of his time.