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The Suspended Moment

What keeps scholars fastened to Heade now is the ambiguous nature of his career as a whole. For Stebbins, Heade is one of the major American nineteenth-century artists because, essentially, he took the headlong naturalism of his contemporaries and gave it a tentative, moody twist. For Novak, writing in a piece that accompanied a small 1996 survey of his work, it’s the man’s sheer contradictoriness that stands out. “Almost alone among his contemporaries,” she writes, “Martin Johnson Heade and his art continue to beguile and puzzle us…. Few artists of the American Nineteenth Century have this capacity to surprise us.” What estimates like this turn a blind eye on is the wildly uneven quality of Heade’s painting. That for decades he felt compelled to redo the same small body of images over and over, with less and less force, is considered (if at all) part of his “enigma.”

Encountering a room of the marsh paintings in the current show, for instance, is not a stimulating experience. Weather and lighting conditions vary somewhat from one picture to the next, and Salt Marsh Hay (circa 1866-1876), the finest of them, has a bracing combination of steel gray and gold tones. But basically we look at a dozen variations of the same grayish-greenish work (of which well over a hundred exist), and Heade’s technique, far from mitigating the sameness of mood of these pictures, is the rock that sinks them. The little farmers or haywagons here or there in the distance are crude, blurry bits, and too many of the pictures have a pastel-pretty vaporishness.

It’s Heade’s hand, his touch, that’s the biggest disappointment at this retrospective. The surfaces of the huge dark skies or black water in his approaching-storm pictures have an appropriate and appealing glassiness, and the ability to paint vast skies awash with distant, curtainlike downpours didn’t desert him in his marsh pictures, either. But many of his early coastal scenes that aren’t of approaching storms have vast stretches of thumpingly garish colors and parched, membrane-thin expanses. When, in other pictures, he paints vegetation, a hummingbird’s throat, or the foamy crest of a wave, Heade mimics, with oil and brush, the very texture of that substance. This sounds promisingly closer to twentieth-century than to nineteenth-century painting, but what Heade serves up is a greasy splotchiness. After an immersion in his pictures, which have more presence in reproduction, you may feel it essential to head elsewhere in the museum for a shot of artists with a more sensual love of oil painting.

Yet Novak and Stebbins are right when they suggest that, in Headeville, nothing is quite as it seems. In some ways, figuring out the riddle that was Heade is more compelling than the experience of his art itself. I obviously don’t think there’s any one detail that can explain the many inconsistencies of the man or his work, but I believe something of an answer lies in the way his best pictures are often about a standoff between the dire and the unfazed. And the best place to see how that relationship evolved is in his paintings of hummingbirds. With his other types of pictures, whether the different kinds of landscape or still life, Heade arrived at his finished form virtually overnight. But with hummingbirds, he experimented with various formats before he came to his ultimate and most satisfying image, of the birds with orchids. In trying to see why this image meant the most to him, and, more importantly, in acknowledging what, in his early training, may have been the inspiration for it, Heade seems less of an ever-confounding mystery.

The first hummingbird pictures are small works, each showing the male and female of another species in a tropical setting, done for a printmaking venture in London that, after problems developed with printers, was dropped by the artist. Some of these paintings, especially the ones where the creatures have decorative white markings and are set against moodily gray or dark blue and rosy backgrounds, are heart-stoppingly beautiful when seen for the first time in Stebbins’s catalog, where each is given its own page. At the show, their impact is lessened, as the small paintings are grouped together in units within one large frame—which turns the pictures into a pleasant blur. They become the work of a naturalist with a feeling for paint, which may be how the pictures struck their first audiences in England. They probably appealed in this way to Kenneth Clark, who bought the lot (for himself) at a country auction in the 1930s.

Heade deepened his involvement with hummingbirds when he began painting them with flowers. He showed the birds either with passionflowers or, far more frequently, with orchids, and each flower, depending on its size, I believe, gave rise to a different kind of image. That the red-orange passion- flower isn’t much bigger than a hummingbird set the tone of these pictures. The petals of this flower turn starchily down and out from its stamen and pistil, making it look in some pictures like a tutu without the ballerina. And whether or not Heade was aiming for a dancelike rapport between the birds and the flowers, that is the effect of these works. Tropical Landscape with Ten Hummingbirds (1870), his most ambitious passionflower picture and one of the best works in the show, has the dimensions and format of a small Oriental screen, and as with many screens it’s the work’s sheer rhythm that holds us. A viewer’s eyes are kept moving constantly. The birds seem to be forever disappearing into the background or emerging from it.

The orchid pictures, though, are more than lyric successes. They’re about a kind of partnership between the orchid plants, which have a startlingly aggressive presence, and the birds, which seem oblivious of the nearby flowers yet are much smaller than them and appear truly diminutive for the first time in Heade’s work. The paintings seem to present a threat that isn’t being sufficiently acknowledged—which makes the images even more suspenseful. This, after all, is why the storm pictures are so engrossing. In the face of imminent awesomely bad weather a man and his dog sit calmly watching by the water’s edge, sailboats sail placidly on, or local boatsmen take in their sails as if they had all the time in the world.

The hummingbirds, of course, have nothing to fear in the first place. But Heade’s seemingly omnivorous orchids, rearing up on muscular stems and accompanied by unfriendly rubbery pods, certainly convey at least a visual threat. The pictures register on our eyes as confrontational before we tell ourselves that they’re not. There’s no way of knowing whether Heade consciously pursued the theme of confrontation here, let alone the trickier one of a feigned confrontation. Yet he obviously did so in his storm pictures, and the paintings in the show of hummingbirds on their own, where there’s no orchid or passionflower, are flat.

The unusual subject of a relationship that is benign or even mutually beneficial, yet appears uneasy or even frightening, was also, as it were, in Heade’s blood. His only teacher was Edward Hicks, and in his Peaceable Kingdoms the Pennsylvania folk artist was making a similar point. Basing his image on a passage in Isaiah, Hicks created a visionary realm where creatures fierce and timid, the meat-eaters and the vegetarians, improbably come together, “and a little child shall lead them.” Quaker equality among all beings and factions was what the sometime preacher was after. But the reason the Peaceable Kingdoms are such substantial works is that there’s nothing really pacified about them. In their stares and the vigilant or contorted curves of their bodies, Hicks’s animals are restless, preoccupied, bemused, indignant, sometimes barely containable.

Art historians have recognized in passing that elements in Heade’s pictures connect with primitive art, but his relationship with the Bucks County painter has elicited little comment. Yet in trying to account for the way Heade’s strongest pictures present the particular moment when a threatening relationship is held suspended, one finds it hard not to wonder about the role that the Quaker painter, whose subject was the same tension, played in Heade’s life.

By a happy coincidence, Hicks himself is now the subject of a retrospective, the first comprehensive look in years at perhaps our foremost folk painter. Carolyn J. Weekley, who organized the exhibition and wrote its catalog, doesn’t dwell on Heade other than to mention that he was part of the master’s shop; yet the details we’re given about the time when he was there suggest that it might have been charged for both teacher and student. Heade worked with Hicks between roughly 1837 and 1839, when he was turning twenty. It was the very moment when Edward’s relative Thomas Hicks, who was a year or two younger than Heade, was also apprenticing, and Thomas and Martin became good friends. A short time later, Thomas painted Martin’s portrait, the only one that exists, and also the only portrait of Edward (they’re both in Weekley’s show).

The painter they learned from in this tiniest of art schools was then in his late fifties and fully a master. By then, Edward Hicks had been involved with Peaceable Kingdoms for twenty years. Only a few years earlier he had made the versions that most commentators believe are his classic statements of the theme, and he’d go on, in the period when Heade was with him and after, to paint, as the current show makes clear, odder and more compelling versions of his chosen story. Hicks had to have made some sort of impression on the young artists. They surely gave him a lift. They appear to have been the sole significant studio assistants he ever had. They were certainly the only ones who went on to their own careers.

And as he started out, Heade, like Thomas Hicks, was a true folk painter. Heade made the same portraits, with their stiff and sometimes charmingly awkward details, as countless anonymous limners did. Also like Thomas Hicks, Heade outgrew his folk-art style for an academically correct one. The portraits he made in his twenties and thirties in his new limber manner were, however, as anonymous as their primitive forebears. (Those that survive, out of the hundreds that Stebbins believes he did, play little part in his story.) Heade only became himself when, in 1859, at forty, he gave up portraiture for landscape painting. He had been hopping from city to city for two decades when, the previous year, he moved for a short while to New York. He fell in with Church, then at the height of his fame, and caught the art world’s fervor, at that moment, for landscape. Heade had made a landscape or two before, but nothing he had done previously had the power or scope of Approaching Thunder Storm, painted during his first full year in New York, or of the other large coastal scenes that followed it.

Yet in these paintings, with their tight, thin surfaces, their emphasis on the drawn outline of shapes and on color as something that’s filled in later, he was something of a folk artist again. It’s as though he spent twenty years draining primitive painting out of his system only to let it suffuse his work at the moment when he finally felt capable of making his first really personal pictures. Heade’s career actually makes the most sense as a kind of debate he continually had within himself between the lessons of his youth and everything he learned after it. His background as a folk artist surely has something to do with the getting-the-job-done perfunctoriness of so many of his pictures. Perhaps it was from Hicks, too, who was nothing if not the repeater of a theme, and whose Peaceable Kingdoms and other works were outgrowths of his work as a commercial carriage and sign painter, that Heade developed his taste for working in series, returning to basically the same image, with only the slightest variations, year in and year out.

And is it possible that the hummingbird and orchid theme represents a backward glance at—or perhaps an unconscious recalling of—Hicks’s prime subject, the Peaceable Kingdom? Not only are both sets of pictures anxious presentations of peaceful coexistence, they have related structures. Hicks sets his gathering at the very front edge of the picture, on a rise of land, with a screen of trees behind them. He creates a world within the world, just for us. So, too, Heade’s scene, which usually shows a single orchid plant dwarfing two hummingbirds, takes place at the front of the image, in its own little realm, often with a vast mountainscape in the distance.

Heade’s hummingbird and orchid pictures have little of the emotional power of any given Peaceable Kingdom. Hicks’s creatures, as Weekley makes clear, were emblems for the painter of profound differences of value that were on the verge of tearing apart the Quaker community at the time. Hicks himself was a volatile spirit; for years he was of two minds even about being an artist. Few of his Kingdoms are truly the same. Especially as Hicks aged, he continued to rethink the particulars and the overall spirit of his core image. Unlike so many other American artists, he never stopped developing his theme.

Yet Heade’s orchid paintings have a force of their own. They exist independently of Hicks. Differences between these tropical scenes are minimal, but the room of them in the present show isn’t monotonous. Even after taking in ten or more you can come upon another elsewhere (as I did in the Philadelphia Museum) and find Heade’s poetic construction, subtly altered in light or in the placement of the scene’s lead characters, beckoning. The pictures, on one level, are about how Heade presents a container for the powerful splash of pink or white that is the orchid, though the flower on its own, without a nearby creature, would completely lose its wonderful mock-voracious character.

It’s the sense of a relationship that’s missing from Heade’s last series, his painting of branches and flowers. These were pictures he began in his sixties, after marrying and moving to St. Augustine. He painted cherokee roses and white magnolia blossoms, but it’s the magnolias that have drawn the most attention. These large flowers are generally seen in extreme close-up, lying on a piece of green, red, or blue velvet, against a brown wall, with nothing else in the scene. For many art historians, the magnolias, with their lounging position and open-petaled readiness, have a scarcely veiled eroticism, and they’re clearly extensions, in a way, of the painter’s orchids. Novak appears more taken with them now than with Heade’s landscapes, and for Stebbins they’re “some of the most remarkable still lifes in our history.” Stark and—for the first time with Heade—brightly lit, the magnolias recall Georgia O’Keeffe but don’t look like much else in American painting. Unusual as they are, they’re also glaring, brassy. The leaves could be wax. They’re unpleasant.

It’s said that the St. Augustine decades were truly happy for Heade. In the fledgling art community there, he was king. Although he and his wife made trips north, the painter lost touch with the New York art establishment. He was no longer on the front lines, testing himself, and it shows in the magnolia pictures. The theme that was most personal to him, confrontation between unequals, evaporated.

Heade’s paintings of approaching storms and of birds in the tropics are as rich as they are because Heade clearly felt himself in both sides of an encounter. He was the threatening black skies and the unintimidated watcher on the shore, the ogreish plant and the blithely indifferent hummingbird. In his last years, in his magnolia pictures, Heade went back to the very same harshly glistening, dark colors of Approaching Storm: Beach near Newport. But now there was no version of an imperturbable yacht sailing on in defiance. Looking at the magnolia paintings in all their alienating, waxy strength, you could say that there was no longer anything frightening to Heade. In a sense, he had become the storm. It had finally arrived.

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