Art Analysis

Here’s a brief background of John Martin’s Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still upon Gibeon (1816). Following the end of the Neapolitan War in 1815, it’s not much of a surprise to see Martin completing a painting such as this the following year. This painting may be categorized as an example of Romantic art because it displays the individuals role across a romantic landscape even in the face of war. We see Joshua, front and center, demanding that the sun itself stand still and not fade in the face of inclement weather (oncoming night), so as to bolster their charge. The hopeful feeling implied by Nature itself encouraging the charge, in the face of something as wicked and terrifying as war itself, offers a highly romantic viewpoint of what war could do for a man. This seems, to me, to be more of a propaganda piece overall, a recruitment effort to bring in more troops as the romantic notion of being able to command the weather, or other forces of nature itself, in the face of war is something depicted or imagined. An attempt to potentially convince an observer that they too could be imbued with such power were they to take part in this war in which God has taken note of, and natures will itself will bend to the oncoming throngs of soldiers pining after their enemies.

Here’s a scene organized from light on the right to dark on the left, introducing an obscured light on the top left of the paining, as rays of light and possible rainfall come down. The visual composition of the spatial configuration allows for you to see that the individual rays appear substantially thinner over the cloudy and obscured side. They also seem less organized, almost chaotic, as if to convey that both light and rain were intermixed. On the right, the darkened cloud cover is much higher and the sun is below the cloud cover. Light rays extend from the sun itself, while in contrast on the left the rays extend from the clouds or breaks or holes in the cloud cover, and could even be observed as rain coming directly from the clouds. On the left there are storm clouds with a clearing just past the horizon. Also on the left you can observe more of a distant mountain range, at first becoming a valley, then followed by shorter and rounded foothills.

More distantly, jagged mountaintops begin to appear. In the valley a winding river appears, which gives the visual appearance similar to the forefront of a winding band of people. In the forefront, the soldiers appear to be coming out of the city and just to the left of the forefront are a pair of archers below Joshua’s feet, who seem to be drawing their bows against some foe. Between the distant foothills and mountains lies the other city over which the clouds part a little. Extending back from the further city and into the plains in the valley is a descending path that cuts in diagonals and allows the entrance and exit into the distant city from the valley.

Overlooking all of this is an even higher cliff closer to Gibeon, that partially obscures a view of the city. From this cliff it feels as if one would clearly be able to overlook both the city itself and the valley and all else that can be seen in the painting. On a lower edge of a cliff further down, one can see Joshua, right arm raised, with an open hand with his palm extended away from him offering the same command for which the painting is named for. Behind Joshua, two men dressed in robes, also repeat the gesture though to a lesser extent.

In the center of the painting, the fortified and walled fortress of Gibeon overlooks the valley. Rays and rain deflect to the left as if to move around the fortress as they originate from the clouds above. Much of Gibeon depicted is filled with square or rounded buildings, with either columns or arches except one structure near the entrance of the fortress which depicts a pyramidal structure that shows three sides and a slightly uneven top, that partially obscures one of the columnar buildings.

Regarding the appearance of motion/movement in the painting, I made an assumption based off the idea that most folks seeing this painting at the time would’ve been taught to read English from the right to the left. The point at which one would start writing on a paper is on the left, whereas the point at which one would return to write a new line is on the right most point. Here, the soldiers appear to be moving from right to left as they travel out of the city and entering the darkened valley, possibly indicating that the light seen over the city travels with the soldiers. At the base of the mountain in the forefront, the soldiers coming from Gibeon appear to be splitting up as some travel to the left of the foothill, and some travel to the right. The foothill itself obscures part of the valley, and splits the river that cuts through it into two. On the left of the foothill, the painting grows quite dark as the soldiers appear to travel off into some darker spot not captured in the painting. On the right, and more in the center of the painting, the other trail of soldiers tapers off as the trail wraps around the cliff and disappears.

There appears to be a lot of balance offered here with darker colors being used around the borders and edges of the painting and lighter colors being used in the center of the painting, offering the effect of seeing a rounded portrait of a scene rather than a rectangular portrait. There is a fair balance of light and dark clouds and there is a duality and mirroring occurring in relation to the two cities being on opposing high grounds. On the left appears to be a rainy and darker view, but on the right appears to be a greener and more vibrant view. There is a large sense of unity implied from the soldiers moving in an ordered formation, giving the appearance of they’re moving due to some unified cause. One lack of balance, to me, appears in viewing the archers who seem to have no easily identifiable opposition. This left me to imagine such a force as would justify having arrows notched and aimed at it, as there is nothing seeming to offer return fire.

A few contrasts are that the city on the right appears to be higher in elevation than the one on the left. Another contrast is that the solider offering the command, while having the ability to do so from higher ground, has not gone to that location to offer the command, and has instead done so from the same or similar elevation as the rest of the soldiers. Many different colors are used through the painting as well, where one sees a lot of vibrant green connecting the cities and beyond. Behind the further city can be observed what appears to be snow-capped mountains that white and gray and blend with the horizon although the visibility is such that one can still make out all the mountains as they fade away. The sky itself is composed of the sun reflecting off of the clouds over the further city, which reminds me of the “fire” mentioned in the bible story the painting is based on.

The appearance of rain seems to be given with the white streaks from the dark rain clouds that extend in straight lines and seem to fall down everywhere except for where the sunlight appears to be poking through the clouds in some places. Blue skies appear in the right over Gibeon along with what appears to be much better weather. The cliffs themselves are often dark and shadowy, where Martin has also mixed in some brown and rust colors. The limited use of these colors makes it very easy to differentiate the soldiers from the landscape in the forefront. As the train of people makes its way into the distance, it becomes very dark on the left and seems to blur in with the greens on the right of the foothills, causing trouble in differentiating between the landscape and anything else. Many white horses and white and red clothing can be seen which offers a reasonably easy contrast to differentiate them from the landscape.

The mood that I feel this painting conveys is that of a war, where soldiers are leaving one city and are in transit to their destination. Eager readiness for combat overshadowed by the presence of impending rain and strong weather offer a sense of the urgency with which these soldiers travel through as not even the weather, or other natural forces, wish to prevent them from moving forward. It also conveys a tense mood, as the two archers with bows drawn are ready to loose their arrows at a moments notice.

In conclusion, I feel this painting conveys a powerful image whereby taking into account that the artists home country was just overcome by war the prior year, the timing for the piece was appropriate. I find Martin’s painting to be more of a propaganda piece for the war effort as he appeared to be relating England to Gibeon as the Allied forces pressed onward only to crush the first French Empire led by Napoleon as he was left to surrender at Waterloo just that past summer. This painting, seemingly a rally to bolster the mood following the unified victory, was one among many that doubtlessly helped set the precedent of a career with the military as a viable option for many a young Englishman at the time.

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