The Suspended Moment

It makes a kind of poetic sense that an artist whose best pictures show the world in the creepily becalmed moments before a huge storm arrives might have something creepily becalmed about his career as a whole. Specialists in the field of nineteenth-century American painting, if not the general museum-going public, know that Martin Johnson Heade’s most renowned works are a handful of paintings of oncoming storms, dating from the late 1850s and 1860s. In these large, magisterial pictures, where the enormous skies are blackening over, the water resembles a black mirror, and all is bathed in a dead, even light, he caught the sheer airlessness of the seconds before a deluge and high winds will strike. At Heade’s retrospective, his first in thirty years and only the second large show of his work ever, a related sense of foreboding emanates from his other kinds of pictures: his tropical landscapes and images of hummingbirds and orchids, his still lifes of flowers and views of salt marshes. The light in these pictures is rarely penetratingly bright. Over the marshes, big, thick clouds can sit thuggishly in what feels like humid air, while his still lifes, which whisk us to the dimmest corner of the Victorian parlor, are like details remembered from a bad dream.

Yet, as if Heade himself had been infected by the illness he wanted continually to treat, his pictures all told leave the impression of something torpid and evasive. Surrounded, in one room at the show, by a dozen marsh paintings, or, in another, by so many still lifes, we feel confined with an artist who was less an explorer of his theme than a victim of the need to keep redoing it. For Theodore E. Stebbins Jr., the foremost authority on the subject and the organizer of the current show, Heade is important precisely because, in a period when American landscape painting was routinely rousing and grandiloquent, he gave to his every view a mysterious uncertainty. At the exhibition, though, the mystery has less to do with the ambiguous nature of the images than with how the painter could be so good and unusual at moments and so pedestrian and unfeeling at others.

Heade was clearly a remarkable artist at times, especially in his earliest mature years. His three major pictures of approaching storms—Approaching Thunder Storm (1859), Approaching Storm: Beach near Newport (circa 1861-1863), and Thunder Storm on Narragansett Bay (1868)—are among the most powerful and elegantly designed paintings in American art. All roughly two feet high by almost five across, these pictures have a distinct formal presence. They’re big in a different way from the large paintings of Heade’s contemporaries and near-contemporaries, whether Frederic Church or Albert Bierstadt, Winslow Homer or Thomas Eakins. Primarily showing expanses of sky and water, they have an all-on-the-surface, bannerlike weightlessness.

They’re each radically different in character, too, making Heade’s achievement only greater and odder. Approaching Thunder Storm (Metropolitan Museum of Art) is the earliest—it was his first truly personal…

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