Sunday, May 29, 2016

Borderlands: In Search of Martin Johnson Heade's Newburyport Meadows

Heade, Newburyport Meadows, c. 1865. Click for high res.

Though you wouldn't call him a maverick, Martin Johnson Heade steered the conventions of nineteenth-century landscape paintings down his own road.

His insistence upon "making it his own" means he doesn't fit neatly into the usual categories. Unlike his Hudson River School contemporaries, he painted small, sometimes uneasy, often luminous canvases that seem at first to be mostly about the sky, instead of the outsized, majestic hymns to America's rugged glamor we associate with the movement. He clearly wasn't as interested in topographical accuracy as they were, devoting himself instead to mood, atmosphere, subtle enigma, and carefully observed effects of light. And yet, if it weren't for the Met's landmark Hudson River show in the 1980s that included him, we might not know even that much about him.

Martin Johnson Heade, c. 1875
He was not, in fact, primarily a landscape painter; he was unique in devoting just as much time to still life and portraiture, all without adhering to convention in each.

Martin Johnson Heade, Still Life with Orchid and Two Hummingbirds, 1860s. People (like Frederick Church, for one) painted exotic locales and people painted botanical studies, but Heade combined them into something else. 

Martin Johnson Heade, Thunderstorm, c. 1860s. This is a powerful yet strange and idiosyncratic painting by any measure.

Although I live less than an hour from Boston, I had to end up by chance in Vero Beach, Florida before I could see a significant chunk of the Boston MFA's preeminent collection of Heade's paintings. A major show of Heade's work mounted in 1999-2000 traveled from the MFA to several other museums across the country, but that was before my time.

One of the Boston MFA's gorgeous Heades - click for high res. 
The MFA only shows one or two of their Heades, so I mistakenly assumed that what I'd seen is what they have, and I'd certainly never seen so many in one place. I'd also never appreciated how singular a painter he was.

Martin Johnson Heade, Sudden Showers, Newbury Marshes, 1865-1875

The Vero Beach Museum of Art's exceptionally well-curated "Nature Illuminated: Landscapes and Still Lifes by Heade and His Contemporaries" confronted me with a double surprise - here, in 95 degree Florida heat, were marvelously atmospheric landscapes of the New England marshes near where I live painted by an artist I'd taken for granted, touted as "one of the most varied and inventive painters of the late nineteenth century."

Martin Johnson Heade, Salt Marsh, Hay, 1865-1870. Heade was a master of atmospheric light and weather effects. He was the first American to depict the phenomenon of stormy dark skies paired with eerily lit foregrounds (cf. The Thunderstorm, above).

Heade was born in 1819 in Pennsylvania, the son of a general-store owner. He showed a talent for portraiture in his early 20s and studied for a season in Paris. He fell in with landscapists Benjamin Champney and John Frederick Kensett, who got him excited about landscape. He ended up specializing in marshes.

To see how different his whole approach to landscape was, check out this pairing of a conventional (and derivative of European models, btw) grand Hudson River landscape by arch practitioner Asher B. Durand (left) with one of Heade's small and moody marshes.

Heade seems to me to have confined himself to these small-scale, geometrically simplified marsh scenes because he wasn't interested in depicting "God's grandeur" embodied in the North American landscape. Perhaps his orientation was primarily inward. He prefers moments of uncertainty, where the light is changing and the weather shifting. As John Updike has written:

Heade’s calm is unsteady, storm-stirred; we respond in our era to its hint of the nervous and the fearful. His weather is interior weather, in a sense, and he perhaps was, if far from the first to portray a modern mood, an ambivalent mood tinged with dread and yet imbued with a certain lightness.The mood could even be said to be religious: not an aggressive preachment of God’s grandeur but a kind of Zen poise and acceptance, represented by the small sedentary or plodding foreground figures that appear uncannily at peace as the clouds blacken and the lightning flashes.

Others have pointed to subtle tensions and dissonances for the viewer of his marsh paintings. There's a disjunctive quality in pairing such agitated and stormy skies with such serene, horizontal land masses, or marrying brightly mobile cloudscapes with foregrounds being consumed by ominous shadows. "Heade's paintings are concerned with the crucial Transcendentalist issue of the fractured self in the modern world," writes scholar Jonathan Clancy.  "They do not offer a solution to this problem but, instead, signify an ambiguous acknowledgment of modernity's problems."

Since I live less than an hour away and have painted there since I started in 2007, it seemed ridiculous that I'd never gone to the marshes in Newburyport and environs with Heade in mind. I decided to right that wrong and headed out to sketch on site in some of the same locations Heade did. I resolved not to imitate Heade but to synthesize my firsthand experience with my memories and feelings about Heade's achievement.

Martin Johnson Heade, View of Marshfield, 1865-1875, at the Corcoran - click for high res. 

One of the most famous of his marsh paintings is "Newburyport Meadows"(reproduced at the top of this page), which is in the Metropolitan Museum's collection. I asked the "Maps" app on my iPhone to show me "Newburyport Meadows" so I could go and paint there, but this is all I got:

Either the "Newburyport Meadows" are gone or Heade invented the name. It's probably a bit of both. There are still marshes here that look a lot like Heade's, but since there are now so few farmers to prize the salty grasses for feeding cattle, the erstwhile marsh-grass "meadows" are almost all confined to small pockets of conservation land between roads and houses. The disparity between Heade's gorgeous and poetic landscapes and the Newburyport "Meadows Construction Company" says it all: the bucolic past has ceded to development.

At the same time, I'm beginning to wonder what it means to paint nature while living in industrialized America under the growing shadow of climate change. "Fractured self?" Check.

I completed 15 paintings in response to Heade's work and what's there now. They'll be shown at Kennedy Gallery in Portsmouth, NH this month. Here are a few of the paintings.

Ghost Marsh - 8"x10" - this was the first one I did, plein air on a gray day - the foggy, dissolving landscape seemed like an apt metaphor for the lost past of Heade's time and the turning-away from nature of ours.
When not actually painting on location I tend to make diagrammatic sketches of ideas and take personal notes about what I'm seeing and feeling. On this day I listed words that occurred to me as I wandered about the marshes: "expansive, watery, bleached, empty, light haze, gold, shock of blue." Later these notes inform larger works I can undertake in the studio.

Parker River Estuary - 11"x14" - this is a memory painting based on a location near Plum Island, now the Parker River Wildlife Refuge, that Heade would have seen.
Newburyport Meadows (after Heade), 12"x16" - this one was an abstracted study of Heade's painting with the same title.

At the Edge of the Marsh, 16"x24"
Shadows and Light, 10"x20"
The Meadows, Clearing Up, 16"x24" There's still beautiful marshland to be seen here.
Heade's one of those artists whose paintings turn up regularly in yard sales and relatives' attics. He was prolific, wasn't a famous artist during his lifetime, was forgotten until the 1940s, and he was quite popular among middle-class buyers. In addition, he was artist-in-residence at a fashionable Florida hotel for the last 11 years of his life, so itinerant buyers bought and dispersed his work widely across the country. 

Here are just two anecdotes about recent Heade discoveries from a list on his Wikipedia page.

  • An unnamed Heade salt marsh landscape now titled "River Scene" was discovered in the attic of a Boston-area resident in 2003. It sold at a local auction house to an art dealer for $1,006,250 and was featured on the PBS television show, "Find!". It was purchased by a private collector, and is now on view at the Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
  • In 2004 a Florida woman was informed of the Heade discovery featured on "Find!" by her son, and inquired about a small 6 x 12 inch landscape that had hung in her living room. The painting, which her late husband had purchased for several dollars in St. Augustine in the 1970s, was authenticated as a late Heade marsh landscape. It sold at auction to an art dealer for $218,500.

The standard source for information about Heade and his work is by the curator of American art at the Harvard University Art Museums, Theodore Stebbins, Jr. 


  1. Somehow I remember Martin Johnson Heade's work from a study of art history. Always loved his work. So glad you looked into his work further. And your paintings after Heade a very nice, too. Thank you so much for this post.

  2. I cam back just to see if it works? And it did! Yeah!

    1. My fingers are sleepy this morning....I keep making typos!

  3. I have always loved the static, dreamy quality of his landscapes. They have an unexpected vibratory element, almost as if you can hear even in these quiet paintings , a humming of dancing molecules.

    1. I agree Cyn. As always? One has to see the work in person to fully appreciate its character.

  4. Thanks for the blog/ article.I live in California but , before Covid, visited in-laws in the Boston area , usually at Thanksgiving. I saw Heade's Newberryport Marshes at Museum of Fine Arts 10 or so years ago and I have never forgotton it.

    I don't know why I liked it so much, but your analysis resonates.

    I am thinking of ordering a copy of one of his paintings done in real oils. Any suggestions? I really like your work and would purchase it if I could afford it. I am not ashamed to have painted copies of great paintings ( I understand that this was not uncommon in the past. Apparently a number of Caravaggio paintings were copied , with permission, during the 1600's).I currently have 2 hand painted copies ofCarravagios: one of John the Baptist, one a part of the great " The Calling of St Matthew. The look on the young boy's face speaks multitudes.

    Thanks again,

    Phil Johnson