Martin Johnson Heade | Romantic Realist

Hayfields: A Clear Day [c1871-80], oil, 171⁄4 x 44, Collection of Jo Ann and Julian Ganz Jr., courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston., painting, southwest art.
Hayfields: A Clear Day [c1871-80], oil, 171⁄4 x 44, Collection of Jo Ann and Julian Ganz Jr., courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

By Theodore E. Stebbins Jr.

Martin Johnson Heade had the longest career and produced perhaps the most varied body of work of any American painter of the 19th century. Born in 1819 in rural Pennsylvania, he had begun to paint by about 1837, when he was 18; he was still working at his easel a few weeks before his death in Florida in September 1904, some 67 years later. Though he won only a minor reputation in his own day and after his death was completely forgotten for many decades, he is now regarded as an artist of great significance and originality and as the only American whose landscapes and still lifes are equally powerful.

Tropical Landscape With Ten Hummingbirds [1870], oil, 18 x 30, Roy Nutt Family Trust., painting, southwest art.
Tropical Landscape With Ten Hummingbirds [1870], oil, 18 x 30, Roy Nutt Family Trust.

Heade apparently learned the rudiments of his craft from his neighbor in Bucks County, PA, the folk artist Edward Hicks, who is well remembered today as the painter of many versions of The Peaceable Kingdom. Heade moved away from his father’s home and set off on his own about 1843, when he moved to New York for the first time.

For the next 15 years, Heade traveled the length and breadth of America and journeyed to Europe as well, learning his trade while painting portraits, genre scenes, and copies of famous American and European portraits. An itinerant, Heade worked in Brooklyn for a time, then—in a high point of his early career went to Washington, DC, in 1846 to paint the hero of the Battle of San Jacinto, General Sam Houston, from life. In 1848-49, thanks to the generosity of his father, he spent two years abroad, largely in Rome; on his return he painted in St. Louis, Chicago, Trenton, Providence, Mobile, and New Orleans, among other places. Yet a decade after painting Houston, Heade was still a journeyman painter at best; in neither his portraits, genre scenes, nor copies had he acquired anything more than a modest competence.

Sunset: Harbor at Rio [1864], oil, 201⁄8 x 35, Museum of American Art of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia., painting, southwest art.
Sunset: Harbor at Rio [1864], oil, 201⁄8 x 35, Museum of American Art of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia.

Heade became interested in landscape during the mid-1850s, and in the summer of 1857 he went to sketch in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, where he met the well-established landscapists John F. Kensett and Benjamin Champney. However, his progress was slow. He wrote to his friend John Russell Bartlett, “I find landscape painting not quite so easy as I supposed.”

A year later he did the wisest thing an aspiring landscape artist could have done: He moved back to New York and secured the last available studio in the new Tenth Street Studio Building. Here he found himself working alongside the leading painters of the Hudson River School; Frederick Church and Sanford Gifford were at work in the same building, and Kensett and Asher B. Durand had studios nearby. Heade particularly admired Church’s work, and the two became lifelong friends and correspondents. Heade’s art changed dramatically at this time: He gave up figurative work and began to specialize in landscape and still life. In addition, his work quickly became known in New York and in the many cities around the country where he exhibited regularly.

Two Magnolias and a Bud on Teal Velvet [c1885-95], oil, 151⁄4 x 241⁄4, lent by James W. and Frances G. McGlothlin, courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston., painting, southwest art.
Two Magnolias and a Bud on Teal Velvet [c1885-95], oil, 151⁄4 x 241⁄4, lent by James W. and Frances G. McGlothlin, courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Heade’s first few landscapes, of late 1858 and early 1859, make use of traditional Hudson River School formats. By late 1859, however, Heade had discarded convention as he developed his own approach to landscape painting, taking elements of the style and practice of the Hudson River School and adapting them to his own vision. In this year he produced his first marine paintings and his earliest marsh scenes, while he continued to paint some traditional landscapes as well. In each of these formats, and in still life as well, Heade made paintings of astonishing originality.

Heade painted numerous series of work. Some were short-lived and consist of fewer than half a dozen explorations of a given theme, but others were made over a decade or more. Of all his series, however, the longest lasting was the one devoted to the northeastern salt marsh; this is the subject of nearly 120 surviving paintings, and doubtless there were once many more.

Heade painted the marsh in the way that Thoreau wrote of Walden Pond, describing every detail and every nuance of an area that to most seemed mundane and forgettable. He painted the marsh at dawn and sunset and under every kind of atmospheric condition: Gray skies and rain clouds threaten; spots of sunlight move across the level grasses; a small boat drifts silently upriver. Eastern salt marshes have a sameness of appearance, but every Heade painting of the marsh was a pictorial experiment. There are failures in the series, pictures where he could not work out certain problems, but there are never duplicates.

If the paintings of the shore as well as the more conventional compositions that he continued to make might lead one to think of Heade as a Hudson River School painter, the marshes make it clear that he was not. Church, Kensett, Durand, and the others frequently worked outdoors on their summer trips making pencil and oil sketches to help them later paint specific topography and close-up details accurately, and they painted the hallowed sites such as Niagara Falls and the White Mountains. Heade responded to nature differently. Much as he tried, he could not accept the well-established iconography of picturesque America or of the tropics. He sketched outdoors, but once he had a satisfactory rendering of a haystack or an orchid, he would use it again and again, the way a folk painter would use a stencil.

Heade’s marshes were as pioneering as his orchids, for both show him rejecting, as David Miller has put it, the “high Romantic iconography, associated, for example, with the Hudson River school and … the moral allegory and aesthetic criteria that underlay it.” As American perceptions of nature changed from the Emersonian to the Darwinian, new kinds of paintings were needed, and Heade was among the first to provide them. Mark Twain was a spokesman for the new, urbanized nation in the post-Civil War Gilded Age, and he—not coincidentally—was an admirer of Heade’s work and the owner of one of the marsh scenes. Both Heade and Twain were caustic critics of materialism who nonetheless found ways to make the system work for them.

As inventive as Heade’s landscapes are, it could be argued that his still lifes are even more so. He began painting them in New York in 1859, just as with the seascapes and marsh scenes, and quickly gained mastery of the new genre. In November 1859 a Boston critic commented that several of Heade’s floral compositions “betray a most careful and earnest study of nature” and then concluded: “They are the best specimens of flower painting we have ever seen.” His earliest series of still lifes was devoted to compositions depicting roses, lilies, heliotrope, and other species standing in a variety of plain and decorated vases. Even though these pictures have a traditional look and relate to work being done by his contemporaries in America, they are nonetheless unmistakably Heades. Both the flowers and the vases are more sensuous than in the work of others; as with the landscapes, the still lifes seem redolent with memory and meaning.

Doubtless inspired by Church’s example, Heade traveled to South and Central America three times, going to Brazil to paint the hummingbirds in 1863-64, taking a brief trip to Nicaragua in 1866, then making a longer journey to Colombia, Panama, and Jamaica in 1870. In Rio de Janeiro in 1864 he exhibited 12 of his small hummingbird paintings along with a view of Rio and was honored by the forward-looking emperor, Dom Pedro II. In his journal Heade matter-of-factly recorded several discussions with the emperor about his hummingbirds, expressing no surprise that a monarch would take an interest in his work.

In 1870, Heade began a long series of paintings depicting hummingbirds with passion flowers or orchids. These works combine traditional features of both landscape and still life along with elements of ornithological and botanical illustration. One seeks in vain for direct precedents for these astonishing works within either American or European art. Where Church described the grandeur of South America for the pre-Civil War audience in huge paintings filled with Ruskinian detail, Heade summarized the tropical experience—the heat, the alluring sensuality, the mesmerizing beauty—in compositions of modest size. These paintings, like those of the northern marshes, do not celebrate place, like Church’s, but rather evoke the ineluctable but almost imperceptible movement of time in nature. If Cole and Church depicted nature as a constant and time as reflecting man’s “voyage of life” on earth, for Heade and his artistic generation man is only a bystander, and nature—nature the actor—takes center stage.

Heade reinvented himself in 1883 when he moved to St. Augustine, FL, and then married. There he found domestic tranquility and permanence, and there his wanderings stopped. In his 60s and 70s he might have settled for repeating earlier compositions, but instead he responded to the Florida landscape and to the state’s flowers and fruit with several new series of works.

Perhaps the greatest change is seen in Heade’s Florida still lifes, especially the Cherokee roses and magnolias, which are the opposite of what one would expect of an aging artist in semiretirement. In depictions of the flowers of Florida, his touch seems surer than ever before in his life. The famous reclining magnolias demonstrate another invention of Heade’s: He had always painted flowers for their feminine qualities, but now the blossoms, reclining luxuriantly on red or blue velvet, take on the ivory skin color and assume the very poses of the alluring woman herself.

In these final paintings, Heade was again out of step with the stylistic mainstream. He had begun by spending 20 years painting portraits and copies, missing the heyday of the Hudson River School and the heroic genre paintings of George Caleb Bingham and William Sidney Mount. Then when he found his true calling, about 1860, his inventiveness in the marsh paintings and the orchid and passion flower series demonstrated his keen (though perhaps unconscious) awareness of the period’s most important intellectual currents. Finally, at the end of his life, again paying little attention to the fashionable and making not the slightest concession to the popular new styles coming to America from France and Germany, he employed a then out-of-date realist style to produce some of the most remarkable still lifes in our history.

In all the work of his artistic maturity, Heade was a romantic masquerading as a realist. He studied the hummingbirds, the orchids, and the passion flowers with the eye of a naturalist, just as he sketched the landscapes of the Northeast, Florida, and Brazil using the methods of the topographical painter. Yet in each genre, the paintings have more to do with memory than with fact; they speak less to keenness of observation than to the richness of the painter’s imagination.

A major exhibition featuring 70 works by Martin Johnson Heade is on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through August 13. The following article by curator Theodore E. Stebbins Jr. is excerpted from the exhibition catalog.

Tropical Landscape With Ten Hummingbirds is unique in Heade’s oeuvre. In a complex composition of intertwined vines, leaves, and tendrils snaking from tree branch to tree branch across the foreground, Heade depicted 10 colorful birds from eight species (there are two male-and-female pairs). The brilliant greens and yellows of the birds, most of which are perched facing alternating directions, contrast with the bright red passion flower buds. The spread wings and tail of the fork-tailed wood nymph at the upper right—the only bird in flight—echoes the shape of the solitary open passion flower blossom below. The whole of this extraordinary display is set against a view of a tropical lake and distant mountains.

Native to Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Jamaica, and the West Indies, these eight species would never have appeared together in one place. Although the arrangement of the birds is artificial, their habitat is realistic. As Charles Darwin had observed, hummingbird beaks were specially suited to fertilizing passion flowers. In addition, passion flowers grew wild in tropical climates, and probably Heade had first observed the Passiflora racemosa, which he depicted here, in Brazil.

Heade never repeated the fantastic Tropical Landscape With Ten Hummingbirds. He went on, however, to experiment with different combinations of passion flowers and hummingbirds in paintings that featured simpler compositions with fewer birds.  —Karen E. Quinn

Featured in July 2000