Becoming a Painter: John Atkinson Grimshaw’s Journey to Success

Becoming a Painter: John Atkinson Grimshaw's Journey to Success

John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836–1893) had a very interesting journey to reach success as a painter. His journey was not all easy but ultimately made him a painter today regarded as one of the influential Victorian artists.

Art historians are of the opinion that he was so successful because his artistic journey followed a road that got him in touch with the work of other artists and philosophers and the ideas of art movements of the time. On the journey, he was influenced by visual and other artists such as James Tissot and the writer and philosopher Ruskin. Then, as he journeyed further, he merged all these influences into a unique style.

Although we’ll follow the road John Grimshaw’s personal life took, we’ll emphasize what happened artistically during this journey. And we’ll also have a look at some of John Atkinson Grimshaw’s paintings to illustrate the different influences on his art and discover why his works are so sought after by art collectors.

Birds-eye View of John Atkinson Grimshaw’s Journey

When you want to learn about John Grimshaw, you’ll have to start at the beginning of his life’s journey. He was born in 1836 in Leeds, where his father was a policeman. Later his father worked for the Great Northern Railway, and Atkinson himself also started to work as a clerk for the same railway company. He married Frances Hubbard in 1856. She was his first cousin.

In 1861 when he was 24 years of age, he resigned from his job at Great Northern Railway and decided to become a full-time fine-art painter. But unfortunately, this was against his parents’ wishes. His mother was a devoted and strict Baptist who disapproved of his painting interest. On one occasion, she even destroyed all his paint.

But Grimshaw didn’t let his parents stop him, and although he had no formal art training, he exhibited for the first time in 1862. It was primarily paintings of birds, fruit, and blossom. In 1866, he and his wife moved to a semi-detached villa in Headingly, and in 1870 they moved to Knostrop Old Hall.

In the 1870s, Atkinson’s paintings became well-known, and he became financially very successful and rented a second home, Castle-by-the-Sea, in Scarborough. Unfortunately, he encountered some financial struggles in the 1880s, and in 1893 he passed away due to an illness.

Autumn Gold – John Atkinson Grimshaw

More About Grimshaw’s Artistic Journey to Success

Grimshaw never received any kind of formal art education or training and was entirely self-taught. But he learned from other artists’ works and then utilized different influences to develop his unique style. When his professional career took off in the 1870s, he was primarily influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites and therefore painted with precise use of color and lighting. In addition, he often focused on the changing seasons, or the weather conditions, to depict the smallest detail and bring realism to his work.

James Tissot’s Aestheticism also influenced him, and as a result, he emphasized in most of his paintings the pleasant, positive, and artful appearance of a person or subject. His most well-known works are his moonlit views of cities and suburban streets and the docks of London, Hull, Liverpool, and Glasgow. While he successfully depicted the urban England of his time, Grimshaw avoided the industrial towns’ depressing aspects.

In Atkinson’s paintings, the depictions of his subjects are very realistic. Art scholars believe his love for realism was partly because of his passion for photography. He depicted scenes on the canvas by using unique techniques of camera obscura.  

He was condemned by his contemporaries because of this technique. Still, today he is recognized for his mastery of color, lighting, and shadow and the ability of his artwork to provoke strong emotional responses in the viewer.

More About Grimshaw's Artistic Journey to Success

Dulce Domum – John Atkinson Grimshaw

Check John Atkinson Grimshaw’s Paintings to Discover Milestones on the Journey

  • One of the milestones in Grimshaw’s journey was the period when he painted interior scenes rather than landscapes or townscapes. This was during the 1870s and 1880s when he was under the influence of James Tissot. “Dulce Domum” (1885) was made during this time, and Tissot’s and the Aesthetic movement’s influences are seen in this painting. He captured the music portrayed by the piano player, and he enticed the viewer to look at the richly decorated room and concentrate on the still and silent young lady listening to the music.
  • Many art historians deem Atkinson’s painting “Moonlight after Rain” an important milestone. Atkinson’s painting describes a scene that is typical of his work and is influenced by the Aesthetic movement. Still, Grimshaw successfully blended aesthetic ideas with Ruskin’s philosophies to create a beautiful urban landscape without including any depressing aspects of industrialization. Grimshaw portrayed his skills to elevate cityscapes to the same level as popular landscapes.
  • “Autumn Gold” was painted in the 1880s and is a milestone in so far as it demonstrates how Grimshaw used photographic techniques to bring precision to his art. And despite the photographic detail, he conveyed a strong atmospheric message by using the yellow hue that changed from a warm golden to a greenish shade.


Johan Atkinson Grimshaw had an exciting journey as an artist. He started his journey without formal training and ended his journey as one of the most famous painters of the Victorian era.