- Museum number
Belshazzar's Feast; scene in an Egyptian-style temple, groups of figures cowering from the bright light which shines at left, a serpent wrapped around a column at left, a table set for the feast in the foreground
Brush drawing in grey ink
- Production date
- 1835 (circa)
Height: 86 millimetres
Width: 137 millimetres
- Curator's comments
- John Martin originally painted ‘Belshazzar’s Feast’ (Yale Centre for British Art, B1981.25.440 ) in 1820, exhibiting it at the British Institution the following year, where it won the premium of two-hundred pounds. It proved so popular with the public that it had to be protected from the throng by a cordon, an unprecedented measure. This was in keeping with Martin’s comment that he had designed the painting to ‘make more noise than any picture ever did before’ (quoted Pendered, p. 103.) The present drawing is a later version, executed circa 1834-5, as a design for a print in ‘Illustrations of the Bible’, published in 1835 by Edward Churton (see 1872,1109.172-315). This joint venture with Richard Westall appeared in two volumes and contained 144 plates of scenes from the Old and New Testaments. Though Martin was himself a talented mezzotint engraver, ‘Belshazzar’s Feast’ was produced in this instance by William Henry Power as a wood-engraving. This book followed in the wake of Martin’s most ambitious artistic undertaking. Originally, he had planned to produce 40 illustrations to the Old and New Testaments with an accompanying special-edition Bible. In the end, he only produced the illustrations for the Old Testament over the period 1831-34; ‘Belshazzar’s Feast’ had also appeared as part of this project (see 1895,0419.1.18). In each version of the scene Martin produced we can see minor changes. For example, in the present drawing the serpent column on the left protrudes above the line of the balcony, whereas in the original painting in does not. There are also minor changes to the shapes of the treasures amassed on the floor in the foreground and the decoration on the throne to the right.
The scene depicted is from the Book of Daniel, chapter 5, verses 13-28. It shows the great feast held by the idolatrous Belshazzar for thousands of his lords, at which they drink out of gold vessels plundered from the Temple of Jerusalem. During the banquet a hand appears and writes the words ‘MENE MENE TEKEL UPHARSIN’ on the wall of the great hall. Belshazzar, terrified of what this might portend, has the captive Daniel brought in to translate the divine message, which reads: ‘God has numbered your kingdom and finished it. You have been weighed in the balances and found wanting. Your kingdom has been divided and given to the Medes and Persians.’ Even for the contemporary audience, Martin’s scene was complex in its scope. To combat confusion the artist produced a pamphlet to accompany his original oil painting that included a line etching of the work. This incorporated a numbered key and arrows, which helped to direct the viewer’s gaze around the painting, ensuring that they examined the crucial characters and happenings in the correct order. Unsurprisingly, the order ran: ‘1. “The writing on the wall”’ (on the far left of the image); ‘2. “Daniel the Prophet”’ (gesticulating in the centre) and ‘3. “King Belshazzar”’ (standing in a group on the right-hand side, with his queen kneeling at his feet). There were 28 directional hints in all, finishing with ‘The Tower of Babel’, which looms through the clouds in the background (see Campbell, p. 29).
Despite its popular acclaim, Martin’s work divided critical opinion. On seeing the oil-painting a reviewer in the London Magazine wrote ‘the whole scene seems to me rather a theatrical pageant … There is too much bustle, noise, hubbub, and screaming for any real supernatural awe… The groups are only groups in the last scene of a melo-drama. These gaudy minions have self-possession enough to hurry, and scamper, as if from a mad ox or dog.’ (The London Magazine, April 1821, p. 443.) In response to the publication of Martin’s original ‘Illustrations of the Bible’, The Westminster Review commented that ‘in "Belshazzar’s Feast" we admire the brilliancy of the light, the vastness and theatric splendour of the scene. The shew is the main feature, and the event itself a mere opportunity for its introduction… It is a gorgeous imposition.’ (The Westminster Review, April 1834, p. 455.) This passage highlights one of the main problems perceived by his contemporaries: Martin did not follow the Academy approved approach to history painting, which centred around a heroic close-up of the principle actors. Instead, as in this drawing, Martin’s figures were overwhelmed by the sheer scale of their surroundings. This differing approach can be seen very clearly in a comparison with Westall’s designs for the 1835 ‘Illustrations’, which often omit the landscape almost entirely.
In this scene, as most of his work, Martin is engaging with the aesthetic of the Sublime. This was analysed and described by Edward Burke in his 1757 treatise ‘A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful’ as that which inspires awe, reverence, fear or other such heightened emotions in the beholder. In his own words, ‘whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime’. (Burke, P.F. Collier & Son Company, New York, 1909–14 p. 39). As in the original oil-painting, this effect is created in the current drawing by the architectural immensity of Belshazzar’s palace. Martin calculated that proportionally the viewer is presented with a palatial room that stretches for a mile into the distance. (The manipulation of vast recession into the distance was regularly employed by Martin to achieve a similar sublimity.) However, some of his contemporaries felt that he failed to achieve a sublime effect in his works. The Westminster Review went on to say of Martin’s plates for ‘Illustrations of the Bible’, ‘They are not sublime pictures, simply because they do not awaken sublime emotions. The mind is not elevated by the ideas they convey of vastness, grandeur and splendour; because the vastness is impossible and the grandeur exaggerated.’ (The Westminster Review, April 1834, p. 457). John Ruskin was of this same opinion, writing in 1880 that Martin’s work was a ‘reckless accumulation of false magnitude’ (quoted Balston, p. 215.)
T. Balston, John Martin, 1789-1854: His life and works, London, 1947.
M. Campbell, John Martin: Visionary Printmaker, York, 1992.
W. Feaver, The Art of John Martin, Oxford, 1975.
M. Pendered, John Martin, Painter, London, 1923.
‘Illustrations of the Bible. By John Martin. Parts I to VI’, The Westminster Review, April 1834, pp. 452-465.
‘The British Institution’, The London Magazine, April 1821, pp. 437-444.
This curatorial comment was written by Olivia Ghosh, Anne Christopherson Fellow, July 2017.
- Not on display
- Acquisition date
- Prints and Drawings
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