Chronologically, John Martin's life for the most part belonged in the 19th century, but stylistically and ideationally he was a child of the late 18th century. He was born in the Revolutionary Year of 1789, and the early romantic trends in philosophy, literature and art characterized his entire production.
Today, few remembers John Martin anymore, even when it comes to art historians. But this makes him all the more interesting: by studying what our own time doesn't appreciate you can learn a lot. In Martin's apocalyptic and often chaotic landscapes with biblical and literary figures, his contemporaries saw both a pictorial boldness bordering on madness, and a near perfect expression of what Burke called "the sublime" - the romantic concept that represented the "strongest feeling which the mind is capable of feeling." Simply put, Burke argued that the sublime can be discerned when beauty exceeds the dimensions and constraints of human perception.
Despite being an unskilled small town boy on the Scottish border and constantly being in quarrels with the Royal Academy, Martin was a respected artist. The contrast is great against his predecessor, the thirty year older William Blake. Blake's mythological images, despite their loaded content, are calm and transparent, with clear contours. In Martin's large and dramatic scenes, the movement and intensity are one with the landscape itself - the spectator is drawn into the images like in a maelstrom. Martin saw nature with the eyes of an 18th century Romantic and portrayed it with a consistent topographical and meteorological exaggeration. The paintings offered the urban bourgeoisie who visited the art galleries an opportunity to live out their strong emotions.
"The Assuaging of the Waters" (1840) is one of John Martin's more quiet and peaceful works. It almost seems tacky and kitschy to our eyes, with its pink skies and seductively swirling water. The sun has broken through the clouds and the dove, sent out from the ark, has picked its olive branch. But it's contrasted by a non-biblical raven - black as well as white has survived the deluge. However symbolic they may be, they're only details in the composition. The real motive is the overwhelming sea and rock landscape. Today, it's difficult to overwhelm any brain suffering from sensory overload by having been marinated in and dulled by mass media and fast paced Hollywood junk since day one. Perhaps a judgement day, such as in many of Martin's pictures, would be a suitable cure.