• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

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 picture—and the suavest. This image of a man and a dog, their backs to us, looking out calmly on an inlet that has turned midnight black and a sky going from dark gray to black, is a model of gorgeous linear planning. The picture represents a catalog of slow, majestic curves, from the arc of the man’s back to the sweeping lines of the spits of land that jut into the water. The many curves underline that the scene is about a closing in of rough weather, yet Heade isn’t melodramatic. Holding our eye with precise, small bits of intense yellow, red, and other clear colors that pop out from the cool black, he’s as much a jewelry designer here as a storyteller and a naturalist.

Yet Heade is so dead-on in conveying the nightmarishness of the moment that we’d hate to find ourselves magically lifted into this or any of the pictures. In Approaching Storm: Beach near Newport (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), the sea and sky form an icily blackish-green realm, and the desert-like, horny shoreline recalls a lizard’s skin. We seem to look at a prehistorically empty world, though there are sailboats on the water, and the apparently unhurried yachts, like the strangely still man and dog, only add to the picture’s sense of dread.

Where the Met’s painting is about one man’s private communion, Thunder Storm on Narragansett Bay (Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth), the last in date of these works, is an epic drawn from everyday life. The largest in size of the storms, it’s also the richest in feeling. It’s equally scary (the sky’s blackness is swallowing up the distant boats), glamorous (we look at a basically black picture relieved by touches of white and tan), and charming (the locals who trudge along with their oars remind us that this is provincial America). Best of all may be the many glowing, needlelike lines—of the lightning, the gulls, the ship masts, the oars—that stand out from the glistening black.

If Heade never surpassed these works, he created other kinds of pictures that add something to their original mixture of equanimity and threat. These are much smaller horizontal paintings—they’re like miniature cinemascope screens—of grassy salt marshes, dotted here and there with homely, beehive-shaped haystacks. In a handful of charcoal and chalk drawings of sailboats going down streams in a crepuscular light—they were included in Heade’s 1969 retrospective but unfortunately not in this one—the marshes enchantingly become a kind of moody playground of geometricized forms. Even more engaging are the paintings of hummingbirds, particularly those with orchids, often seen in mountainous tropical settings. The pictures, it dawns pleasurably on a viewer, are cousins of the impending storm paintings, perhaps even of the marshes. Although most of the hummingbirds Heade shows are perched on branches, we think of this bird for its ability to stand motionlessly before a flower. Like the minutes before a storm hits, a hummingbird, by its very nature, suggests time being held in check.

Heade’s strongest pictures, it could be said, are about the suspended moment, when what’s coming next is more the subject than the here and now. At his retrospective, though, it’s Heade the person who seems held in check. Too many of his pictures, whether tropical landscapes, sunsets over swamps, coastal scenes, or still lifes, feel cursory, anonymous. They have the presence of so many provincial products—an estimate that wouldn’t have surprised his contemporaries.

Long before his death in 1904, at eighty-five, Heade ceased to command much interest in the art world of his day. Even in the years when he was the subject of attention, as Stebbins points out in an absorbing account in the catalog of the painter’s ever-changing reputation, Heade meant far less to critics in New York than elsewhere in the country. For forty years after his death, he was entirely forgotten, erased from American art history. Then in 1943 his Thunder Storm on Narragansett Bay was discovered in an antiques store in Larchmont, New York, a spooky event since this is his single most extraordinary work. Within a year it landed in a show at the Museum of Modern Art called Romantic Painting in America. From that moment Heade became an object of fascination, lasting now over three generations, for scholars, collectors, and dealers in the field of American art.

Researching Heade offered the rare chance of re-creating a body of work whose outlines had fallen into oblivion. Approaching Thunder Storm, for instance, now one of the Met’s signature American pictures, was unknown before 1975. Heade’s output was large, too, and his way of working, with a certain few themes, was unusual for the time; and the man’s character, as it slowly emerged, was unrelentingly contradictory. Though his pictures show little in the way of a forceful light, and his oncoming storms are pointedly about a muffled drama, Heade the man was hardly a romantic recluse; he wasn’t another Albert Pinkham Ryder, much as his early admirers wanted him to be. As Stebbins’s research shows, Heade was a kind of unpredictable, neurotic bustler. For much of his life he participated vigorously in shows and attended to all his accompanying public relations duties. When he wasn’t painting he was busy hunting and fishing, or concerning himself with game preserves and the lore of hummingbirds. In his early years he wrote reams of verse, and eventually he had a column in Forest and Stream (later Field and Stream). He was a peppery letters-to-the-editor man who could be counted on to zap, say, wealthy land developers.

Yet Heade speculated in land himself. And his writing was kept anonymous. For much of his life, he was also spectacularly nomadic, rarely staying anywhere for more than a year or two. There were plenty of trips to South and Central America, along with a few to Europe, and he got as far west as Vancouver. Though he had few artist friends, he was close for decades to the robust and jovial Frederic Church. When Heade was in New York, he could generally be found at a studio in the Tenth Street Studio Building, at 51 West 10th, where Church and Bierstadt at one point had studios, too. To be there was to be in the thick of the New York art world of the day—though he didn’t join any of the artists’ clubs that proliferated in the era. Then in 1883, now in his sixties, he married for the first time and settled down with his wife in St. Augustine, Florida. There, still making new versions of pictures he had first done decades earlier, he spent the last twenty years of his life.

In the period after the discovery of the Larchmont painting, Heade’s landscapes were the works of his that seemed most complex. Maxim Karolik, among those who were stirred by the appearance of Thunder Storm on Narragansett Bay at the Modern, eventually collected over thirty Heades. They were part of Karolik’s groundbreaking collection of mid-nineteenth-century American painting, at the time an unorthodox body of pictures, eventually given to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, which drew attention not only to Heade but to the Gloucester-based marine and coastal painter Fitz Hugh Lane and to a strand of American painting that showed the world in a cool, crisp light. Here were American pictures that were closer to Pre-Raphaelite art, with its manic concern to reproduce every detail in the painter’s line of vision, and to the disturbing ultraclarity of Yves Tanguy’s and Salvador Dali’s vistas, than to the mellow Hudson River School landscapes that slightly preceded Heade or to the empyrean visions of Church and Bierstadt.

For Karolik, Heade was “the genius of the collection,” and for some of the foremost art historians of American art of the following decades, including John I.H. Baur, Barbara Novak, and John Wilmerding, Heade’s gradually emerging works, and not only the handful of coolly detached storm pictures, took a foremost place in what came to be known as Luminist painting. Luminism wasn’t a term or an idea that the artists of the time were aware of, and in recent years it has lost its allure. But in the 1960s and 1970s, the desire to make a native school out of a predilection some American painters briefly had for showing the world in a dry, even light turned the entire subject of American nineteenth-century art into a lively topic.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print