Ominous Hush: The Thunderstorm Paintings of Martin Johnson Heade
Ominous Hush: The Thunderstorm Paintings of Martin Johnson Heade
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.) A kind of hermit on the move, Heade nevertheless engaged in the commerce of a professional artist, exhibiting and selling and painting series of similar canvases when their topic proved popular. He was best known in his lifetime for his luminous, horizontal, finely detailed paintings of coastal marshes—those of Newbury, Rowley, and Marshfield when he lived in Boston, and the Jersey Meadows when he lived in New York—and for his meticulous and rather taxidermic studies of humming-birds and orchids, based on his three excursions into Latin America.
He also executed, from 1859 to 1868, some arresting seaside vistas under dark or threatening clouds, and these are the substance of an exhibition, Ominous Hush: The Thunderstorm Paintings of Martin Johnson Heade, come to the Metropolitan Museum of Art from Fort Worth’s Amon Carter Museum. The Amon Carter owns the now celebrated Narragansett Bay painting that in 1943 sparked Heade’s revival; it serves as the centerpiece of a show consisting of a mere eight canvases, fleshed out with four preparatory sketches in pencil and a contemporary engraving of a painting of Point Judith, Rhode Island, whose original has vanished. These items, supplemented by two small canvases—one of marshes, one of orchids and humming-birds—from the Metropolitan’s collection, fit pleasantly into a single gray-painted room and its entryway. Amid the Met’s plethora of treasures a small space of artistic contemplation has been carved, complete with a broad bench.
Studying the set of storm paintings, I could not bring myself to believe that they had much to do with the Civil War and Reconstruction, though the pretty catalog, by Sarah Cash with technical notes by Claire M. Barry, devotes a good proportion of its text to citing storm references in contemporary sermons and poems and rhetoric. Undoubtedly the Civil War, with its suspenseful preamble and its morally compromised aftermath, bit deeply into the national soul; millions were passionately engaged. But Heade himself was sufficiently disengaged to take off to Brazil in 1863 and to stay a year or more, enjoying the favors of Dom Pedro II, who made him a Knight of the Order of the Rose. The delicate, wavery lightning stroke of Thunder Storm on Narragansett Bay—called by a reviewer in 1868 “about the weakest attempt that ever was made by an artist to represent the effect of the electric fluid on the clouds”—does not evoke “the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword,” as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” has it, nor are the two diagonally crossed beams of driftwood in the lower left corner very suggestive of the Christian cross. By 1868—the painting is firmly dated, beneath the signature—the war was over, in any case; are we to believe that that year’s impeachment of President Johnson or the election of Ulysses S. Grant are the ominous referents?
The painting is, in fact, strangely idyllic and tranquil. The tawny foreground, whose projecting arm of sand provides the center stage, is sunlit. The two figures walking upon it do not appear to hurry from the coming storm but to saunter; a dim third figure is relaxing the white sail of a beached boat, whose reflection is calmly mirrored in still black water. The seven boats still at sea, and the seven gulls suspended in air, convey a sense of orderly homecoming; the lightning flash is distant, beyond the line of green hills; and the patch of light sky at the left implies that clearing will soon follow the dark clouds lowering their veils of rain harmlessly out to sea.
Heade liked the still, soft, electric atmosphere before a summer thunder-shower, one supposes—else he would not have attempted to paint the moment so often. Storm clouds bring tension and temporal particularity to many of his vistas of flat marshes, such as Gathering Hay before a Thunderstorm, Marsh in a Thunderstorm, and Sudden Shower, Newbury Marshes, all from the 1860s. The American landscape artists of the mid-nineteenth century, in seeking to possess their immense subject, broke it into moments: Church’s Twilight in the Wilderness (1860) and his Sunrise off the Maine Coast (1863) are spectacular examples; in Fitz Hugh Lane’s less flamboyantly ambitious canvases, the sky and its mirror the sea are made to yield the precise tints, pink or golden or blue, of a day’s passing phase. The moment when rain approaches or recedes, like those of sunrise and sunset, is dramatically freighted with implications of a past and future, of a life that the landscape leads.
Heade, a scarcely schooled painter whose illusionistic technique can appear ungainly next to Church’s or Lane’s, taught himself how, with scumbling and stippling and streaking, to capture the evanescent atmospherics of rain; his bold use of black, in the relatively early Approaching Thunder Storm (1859) verges on the surreal. The band along the top has an uncloudy density; the felt-gray sky beneath it seems a liberty the painter has allowed himself; and the water is pure ink. Against the utter black a sunlit man and dog have a cartoonish sharpness of shape and color, as if transposed from a Brueghel onto an American beach, whose grasses are highlighted with stabs of the brush handle. It is a plangent but beautiful picture, with its rhythmic recession of alternating points of land and the bright white sail of the boat whose mast-tip lies in the exact center of the canvas.
From that same year, Storm Clouds on the Coast (1859) is full of crudities: the sandpipers seem as small as sandfleas, the receding whitecaps are too regularly spaced, and the spume of the crashing wave seems a bit too obviously dabbled white paint. The sea, the sky, and the land on the left could each have been painted by a different man, the land painter the most laborious. But a certain sullen menace does come through. The painting is thought to have been first owned by Henry Ward Beecher; the popular Brooklyn preacher, later to be brought down by scandal, was a considerable collector whose “extensive library,” we are told, “included many volumes of poetry that contained thunderstorm metaphors for the Civil War.”
Of course, the Victorians, for whom God had put on the stern and ambiguous face of Nature, saw portents and symbols everywhere. God’s grandeur is clearly the subtext of Church’s imposing panoramas, even without such helpful hints as the little spotlit shrine in a foreground corner of his stupendous The Heart of the Andes (1859). Albert Bierstadt’s equally staggering rectangles of splendor take the sublime implications even further, into a kind of naturalistic baroque, a veritable ecstasy of soaring crags and peaks dissolved in mist and light. But though we know that Heade wrote two hymns to Henry Clay and left an Episcopal Book of Common Prayer among his effects, his paintings do not register as ideological. Coastal Scene with Sinking Ship (1863), painted at the height of the Civil War, comes closest, but the smallness of the ship, and the nearby presence in the sea of two sailing vessels erect and afloat, make it a very remote illustration for (as the wall text suggests) Oliver Wendell Holmes’s
The good ship Union, southward bound: God help her and her crew!
Rather, one notices that the half-stormy, half-blue sky is lovely, and that in four years Heade has learned quite a lot about showing the flow and froth of crashing waves. His water, however, never quite attained the superb liquidity of, say, Church’s amazing Niagara Falls (1857) or of Alfred Thompson Bricher’s Time and Tide (c. 1873) or of the mountainous, sliding, froth-webbed heaps of greenish ocean that Winslow Homer rendered from his cliff’s-edge Maine studio. In Heade’s Approaching Storm, Beach Near Newport (c. 1867), the breaking waves have a crêpe-papery, white-edged thinness to them, though the overlapping loops of thin spilling water on the beach are excellent, and further out he has caught—as he did not in the 1859 Storm Clouds on the Coast—the long shadows of the waves steadily surging behind the breakers, connecting the motionless horizon with the foreground tumult. The sunlit rock point on the left has a lunar starkness that goes with a green-black ocean not quite of our planet.
The most pleasing and memorable Heade canvases are those, I came to feel, with a touch of naiveté. He studied as a young man with Edward Hicks and his cousin Thomas, who are considered “naive” or folk artists. Heade’s first works were portraits in the naive style, that is, hard-edged, expressionless, and anatomically insecure. Though he rapidly improved after an extended youthful sojourn in Europe, there remains in even his later work a formalizing impulse and a fudging of some illusionistic challenges that Church, say, would have brought off with a wearisome ease.
Heade was fond, for example, of long looping shapes, from the beach wavelets mentioned above to the black bays of Approaching Thunder Storm; a photograph of the spot in Rhode Island from which he painted this view reveals how he lifted the perspective to clarify the curves of the bays, while eliminating a rectangular jetty on the left. Shore Scene, Point Judith (1863) depicts one long loop of water coming into a curved beach, and the blunt end of the curve subtly offends correct perspective, though the pictorial logic is impeccable. A nighttime version of the same scene—Point Judith, Rhode Island (c. 1863)—eliminates this awkward end of the bay, and the painting is the more conventional for it. It is slightly disconcerting, in this pair of large marine views, to see how closely Heade duplicated not just the rocks but the pattern of splashing waves and, somewhat, that of the clouds; for all his visionary qualities, he recycled his sketches efficiently. One oil sketch of magnolia blossoms served him in six still lifes.
His many studies of orchids, roses, and magnolias, painted recumbent like petalled odalisques, were his original contribution to the American art of the still life. They contain a social, if not a political, statement: these enlarged flowers, with their accompanying pairs of hummingbirds, were Heade’s way of painting sex. Orchids are notoriously an erotic flower. Their very name derived from orchis, the Latin for testicles (based on the shape of the roots), and their petals, leading into a deep cavity, are strikingly vaginal. Heade did leave on record a statement about sex, transcribed by his first biographer, Robert G. McIntyre, from a “notebook,” Stebbins tells us, “of now unknown location.” With an honesty remarkable in a pre-Freudian man, Heade wrote:
Every man who possesses a soul has loved once, if not a dozen times, for passion was created with man, and is a part of his nature… As soon as the affectionate and sensitive part of my nature leaves me, I shall consider the poetry of my existence gone, and shall look upon life as a utilitarian, bargain-and-trade affair; for that poetry is the only source of real happiness we have, and I care not whether it is laughed at or acknowledged.
It must be acknowledged that the eroticism comes through the flower paintings rather stiffly and unevenly, and that Heade was not the most accomplished of painters in his time. Walking upstairs in the Metropolitan to the Thomas Eakins exhibit on view, one finds in abundance an element quite missing in Heade: people, in their psychology and physiognomy. Eakins’s own marsh view, Pushing for Rail (1874), pursues human personality right into individualized faces smaller than a fingernail. Moving on to the general American galleries, the viewer confronts a dynamic magnificence in Church and Homer that was not within Heade’s powers; nor was his calm the pearly calm of John Frederick Kensett or the celestially glassy calm of Fitz Hugh Lane. Heade’s calm is unsteady, storm-tinged; we respond in our century to its hint of the nervous and the fearful. His weather is interior weather, in a sense, and he perhaps was, if not the first to attempt portraits of human moods in aspects of nature, the first to portray a modern mood, an ambivalent mood tinged with dread and yet 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 seem uncannily unperturbed as the clouds blacken and the lightning flashes.