John Breckenridge Martin, painter, son of Joe Martin and Nancy Chestnut Martin, was born near London, Laurel County, Kentucky, on April 29, 1857. He was nearly eighty years old and had been painting since 1889 when Thomas Hart Benton commented that his works were "some of the finest paintings he had ever seen." J. B., as he was called, left Kentucky at nineteen and moved to Texas to work as a cowhand. He worked on a ranch near Sherman in 1876, at the JA Ranch in West Texas, and as a photographer in Fort Worth in 1881; he farmed in Grand Prairie in 1883. In 1887 Martin moved to Dallas and worked as a clerk in the dry-goods store of Fellman, Grumbach, and Harris. Later he became an agent for the Hulbert Portrait Company of Dallas. He married Sarah Alice Collins of Centralia, Illinois, on October 11, 1888, and they moved to Oak Cliff. According to Martin, one Sunday morning when the English artist hired by Hulbert was at church, Martin used his supplies to paint a memorial portrait of his sister. This was Martin's first attempt at painting; thereafter, art became his lifelong pursuit.
In 1889 artist Robert J. Onderdonk moved to Dallas and also worked for the Hulbert Portrait Company; Onderdonk and Martin became friends. In 1890–91 Martin was proprietor of a "Home Studio" at 342 Elm Street; in 1892 his occupation was "portrait artist," and he lived at the same address as Charles Franklin (Frank) Reaugh. From 1896 to 1901 Martin's occupation alternated between portrait artist and traveling salesman for the C. B. Anderson Company. From 1901 to 1907 he was a salesman. In 1908 his occupation was "artist," but in 1909 he sold real estate. In November 1909 Martin was hired by the Dallas Art Association to watch over exhibitions and give tours to visitors. During his fourteen years at this job he painted portraits, landscapes, and flowers in pastel. He exhibited annually at the State Fair of Texas and with the Fort Worth Art Association and also displayed his paintings at the Dallas Allied Art exhibitions. Because Martin was a self-taught artist who received his inspiration from "God's great university of nature," he was virtually ignored by Dallas art patrons. Before the recognition by Thomas Hart Benton, the only one-man show of Martin's paintings had been held by Sartor Galleries. After Benton's comment, Martin's paintings were eagerly sought and purchased. In 1938 the Dallas Museum of Fine Art (now the Dallas Museum of Art) agreed to make an exception to its usual exhibition criteria and presented a one-man show of paintings by J. B. Martin. Martin died on November 30, 1938, in Dallas.