Heade Storms

Ominous Hush: The Thunderstorm Paintings of Martin Johnson Heade

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 4, 1994–January 8, 1995

Ominous Hush: The Thunderstorm Paintings of Martin Johnson Heade

catalog of the exhibition by Sarah Cash, technical notes by Claire M. Barry
Amon Carter Museum, 88 pp., $25.00 (paper)

One good thing about nineteenth-century American painting is that there is a lot of it. The teeming schools of industrious, capable artists who catered to the romantic tastes of the burgeoning bourgeoisie held a number of odd fish that appeal, with the right critical sauces and scrupulous filleting, to the stringent tastes of this later century. One such is Martin Johnson Heade, a not unknown but never highly successful colleague and friend of Frederic Edwin Church. Heade, who changed his last name from Heed, was born in 1819 along the Delaware, in Lumberville, Pennsylvania, and led a wandering life, with addresses in Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Rome, Paris, St. Louis, Chicago, Madison, Trenton, Providence, Boston, Rio, London, Nicaragua, Colombia, Jamaica, British Columbia, and California.

The years, from 1866 to 1881, in which he lived in New York City, subletting at the outset Church’s quarters in the Tenth Street Studio Building, were the most collegial and productive of his career. Nevertheless, almost uniquely among his peers, he never became even an associate member of the National Academy of Design, and was refused membership in the painterly Century Association. In 1883 Heade discovered Florida, and the next year he took up residence in St. Augustine, equipped for the first time in his life with a wife, born Elizabeth V. Smith of Brooklyn, and a patron, Henry Morrison Flagler, a former partner in Standard Oil who devoted his great wealth to developing Florida with hotels and railroads. Heade spent twenty apparently contented years in St. Augustine, painting the landscape and shooting the wildlife and writing conservation-minded letters to Forest and Stream (later Field and Stream) under the name of “Didymus.”

After his death, in 1904, at the age of eighty-five, Heade’s modest reputation fell into total eclipse until 1943, when his masterly canvas Thunder Storm on Narragansett Bay (1868) was hung in the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition Romantic Painting in America, under the geographically erroneous title Storm Approaching Larchmont Bay. Since then, Heade has attracted a good deal of critical notice and scholarly delving—a number of his recorded paintings are still not physically located, and a very imperfect documentary light has been shed upon his restless, enigmatic life. The Life and Works of Martin Johnson Heade, by Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr., remains the fullest word on its subject, nearly twenty years after its publication in 1975. Though the painter wrote poems and sprightly letters to the editors, he confided little to paper concerning art; his letters to Church, where such matters were possibly discussed, were not preserved, though Heade kept many of Church’s.

Like Vermeer, Heade blended into the art of his time and needed posterity to recognize the exceptional quality and concentration beneath his surface quiet. A better analogy might be with Emily Dickinson, whose lonely oddity emerged as a profound integrity—if we can imagine Dickinson as a workaday publishing poet. (Or with Thoreau, who serves as a frequently quoted touchstone in Stebbins’s biography—without any demonstration, however, that Heade ever read him.)…

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