Friday, September 18, 2015

Martin Johnson Heade's "Ominous Hush" Before the Storm

Martin Johnson Heade, who lived from 1819 to 1904, had one of the longest careers of any American painter.  Yet, he enjoyed only modest success in his lifetime, and was completely forgotten soon after his death.  Scholars and the public rediscovered his work about 40 years after his death.  He is usually included in the second generation of the Hudson River School, but in fact he was something of a loner.
He was born on the Delaware River in Lumberville, PA. His father owned the only general store in the town.  He got his first lessons in painting from the great Quaker painter Edward Hicks.  Heade spent many years traveling and studying in Europe, returning to the States to make a career as a portrait painter. He became interested in landscape painting when he met John Frederick Kensett and Benjamin Champney in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.  Heade acquired a studio in the famous Tenth Street Studio Building in New York and became neighbors with Kensett, Frederick Church, and Albert Bierstadt.  Heade's art and life would take a very different path from all of those artists.

Below are my photographs from the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum in New York.  They are freely available, especially to educators.

Approaching Thunder Storm, 1859

This is one of Martin Johnson Heade's largest works and one of his earliest seascapes.  It is based on a storm he witnessed on Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island in 1858.  A critic in 1860 praised the painting for its "ominous hush... the dread feeling in the coming storm."  The hush is indeed ominous, but no one in the painting seems to register the dread.  The man in the foreground calmly smokes his pipe with his dog watching the approaching storm.  The sail boat and the man in the rowboat presumably head for shore, but neither seem to be in a hurry.  The black water is still with hardly a ripple.
This is one of the strangest and most hypnotic storm scenes I know.  It's like nothing else I know of, not Kensett's storms and certainly nothing like the storms of Bierstadt or Turner.  The disconnect between the sunlit calm foreground and the oncoming atmospheric violence is really striking and strangely unsettling.

Of all the paintings of storms I've seen over the course of my life, this is the closest I know of to my own experiences of watching oncoming thunderstorms.  I've experienced that wonderfully charged moment just before the sunlight disappears and the storm breaks many times, and I've always loved the experience whether it was watching lighting in an oncoming storm in the backyard with my dad in Dallas, or watching the same alone from a tenement balcony in Saint Louis.

Lately, I think writers about this picture over-interpret it as some kind of premonition of the Civil War.  Heade, unlike other Hudson River School artists, seems to have avoided politics.  I seriously doubt that he had anything remotely allegorical in mind in this painting.  Bleeding Kansas and Southern secessionist passions reached him only through the newspapers.

Newbury Meadows, circa 1876 - 1881

Heade painted over 120 scenes of the salt marshes along the Atlantic coast in all kinds of lighting and weather conditions.  He always showed the marshes with mowers cutting the reeds for hay leaving conspicuous haystacks.  
Monet painted a series of haystacks partly out of a conservative French nationalism, but more so to meditate on the changing aspect of vision in different qualities of light.  Heade's work at first look straightforwardly topographical and matter-of-fact, especially compared to the romantic nature reveries of most of the Hudson River School artists.  But, he uses the haystacks as a kind of marker or a foil to give scale for his real interests; the vast expansive flat landscape of the marshes and the large sky with its dramatically changing light and weather.   
In this painting, in many of his marsh paintings, there is again that very strange quiet on the brink of an oncoming storm, the last burst of sunlight before it disappears in the storm clouds.

I've always enjoyed these paintings and seek them out in public collections of American painting from the 19th century.  I love the wide open spaces captured so beautifully on such small panels.  I love the silvery tonality of this painting and others like it.  I love the drama and variety in a deliberately restrictive format.  These paintings rarely fall flat.

Hummingbirds and Passion Flowers, circa 1875 - 1885

In 1863 Heade traveled to Brazil to work on a series of paintings of hummingbirds and tropical flowers intending to send them to England to be copied by printmakers for a proposed book on tropical hummingbirds that never materialized.  Some of these paintings were first exhibited in Rio de Janeiro where they were admired by Emperor Dom Pedro II.  These paintings also enjoyed some success when they arrived in England.  By his own admission, Heade obsessed over hummingbirds and fell in love with the tropics traveling in the Caribbean and eventually settling in Florida in 1883. He spent the rest of his life painting mostly still lives of Southern flowers, especially magnolias.
After his death in 1904, he was buried in Brooklyn according to his wife's wishes.

I enjoy the eccentric weirdness of Heade's bird and flower paintings; very imaginative dream-like reconstructions of the tropics.  They are so different from Audubon's bird pictures with their very 19th century life-or-death-struggle-for-survival aesthetic.  It is the beautiful strangeness of the tropics that seems to have captivated the imagination of this Pennsylvania storekeeper's son.

Martin Johnson Heade, from Wikipedia


The gallery in the Metropolitan Museum where I've been spending a lot of time lately.  I have no idea why, but I'm really enjoying the experience.



JCF said...


Sorry, that's just what I notice first. <3

I never would have seen the lightning bolt, had you not selected it for embiggening. ;-/

Thanks, Doug.

Nuncle said...

In the first photo of the storm painting there is, at the left, a largish and whitish something draped over some rocks at the edge of the water. What is that? I assume it may be a sail or sailcloth left there to dry out. Is that right? It seems vaguely the wrong scale or something. You didn't present that segment of the painting in a detail, so maybe you, too, think it is a bit weak.

Counterlight said...

I actually did photograph that detail, but like you, I think it is very odd. It clearly is a piece of sail cloth, but it looks like a big dead flounder.

Nuncle said...

Thanks for the extra detail. Yeah, the picture seems to need something there, and the cloth seems to be the right sort of thing thematically. But it hasn’t been brought off very well. I don’t mean to cavil more, since the picture is really so wonderful. I’m grateful for the attention you’ve given to it.