Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 23, 2000
Theodore Stebbins The Life and Work of Martin Johnson Heade: A Critical Analysis and Catalogue Raisonné Yale University Press, 2000. 496 pp.; 84 color ills.; 690 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (0300081839)
Theodore Stebbins Martin Johnson Heade Yale University Press, 1999. 208 pp.; 112 color ills.; 30 b/w ills. Cloth $50.00 (0300081693)
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, May 28–August 13, 2000; National Gallery of Art, February 13–May 7, 2000; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, September 29, 1999–January 17, 2000.
Thumbnail

Martin Johnson Heade (1819–1904) marched to a different drum than his fellow American painters in the second half of the nineteenth century. When confreres explored mountain ranges, he discovered marshlands; when they settled in New York City to establish reputations, he continued a peripatetic existence; when others were repeating tired variations on a single theme, he struck out in new directions. His marsh scenes, storm paintings, orchid and hummingbird pictures, and late reclining floral still lifes: These are American originals. Heade can lay claim to a more diverse and creative body of work than almost any of his colleagues, as well as one of the most thorough monographs in American art of this period: the work of Theodore E. Stebbins Jr., who has produced the exhibition, catalogue, and book under review here.

It is entirely appropriate that the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, should launch this stellar exhibition. Its origins can be traced back to 1945 when patron Maxim Karolik, seeking out the work of then little-known mid-nineteenth-century painters, bought his first Heade, Approaching Storm, Beach Near Newport. Karolik went on to locate and purchase thirty works by him, which he donated to the museum, establishing it as the preeminent center for Heade studies.

The first major Heade retrospective in thirty years, the exhibition was a visual marvel. Wandering from gallery to gallery, organized according to genre, the visitor could not help but wonder if such diverse pictures could have been painted by a single hand. Those seeking the interpretive intervention of the curator, however, were out of luck, for here the painter’s versatility and skill were left to speak for themselves. Without verbal exegesis and illuminating display strategies, audiences lacked a framework in which to contextualize the extraordinary body of work that confronted them. Given the rare opportunity this exhibition offered, it struck me that it was too understated and that more could have been made of it. In that tendency it echoed Heade himself, whose self-effacing brush work and itinerant lifestyle did not make it easy to recover his remarkable talent.

While the book is the main focus of this review, a few words should be mentioned about the catalogue. It focuses on Heade’s principal themes including seascapes, salt marshes, tropicals, and late Florida work. What I found particularly noteworthy was the essay on technical aspects of Heade’s works. Collaboration between conservators and art historians is not as common as it should be. Here the partnership yielded important insights, documented in the essay by Jim Wright.

The Life and Work of Martin Johnson Heade builds on his publication from twenty-five years earlier. Not content to re-issue an out-of-print book with a new introduction, Stebbins undertook a thorough reexamination of the painter’s career in the light of a quarter century of scholarship in the field and of the resurfacing of numerous pictures, catalyzed by a booming market in American art. Employing the time-tested tools of art history, he provides a thoroughly-research, well-reasoned, and clearly-articulated treatment of this large and diverse artistic oeuvre.

This endeavor was greatly enhanced by the discovery of several caches of primary material hitherto unknown or unavailable: Heade’s extensive correspondence with John Russell Bartlett, 1858–1864 (John Carter Brown Library, Providence, RI); Brazil-London Journal (MFA, gift of Richard and Susanna Nash); and letters to astronomer Eben J. Loomis and his daughter Mabel Loomis Todd (Yale University). Additionally, the pictorial work has grown by about 60%, from 381 paintings in 1975 to 621 in 2000. These are all documented and illustrated in the indispensable catalogue raisonné which comprises the second half of the volume. While only two paintings have been deleted from the oeuvre presented in the earlier publication, the more radical change has come in our understanding of Heade’s works on paper. For some time now, scholars have been questioning the attribution of what were thought to be charcoal (now identified as black chalk) drawings of the Newburyport marshes; recounting their history (Appendix A), Stebbins demonstrates the lack of clear links to Heade, concluding, “the authorship of these drawings remains a mystery” (169).

What emerges from these pages is a revised view of the man as well as the painter. Heade remained something of an outsider, when the path to success was conformity and club-going. Given the number of artists of—let’s face it—middling talent elected to the National Academy of Design, for example, why was Heade excluded? Through careful examination of exhibition and sales records from beyond the great metropolis, Stebbins dispels the image of a “misunderstood misfit” and replaces it with that of a “successful small-time entrepreneur, albeit one with an idiosyncratic personality.” For “year after year Heade sent paintings to up to a dozen different exhibitions around the country,” (IX) where middle-class families—rather than big collectors—purchased his modestly-priced works. This argument suggests important avenues of investigation into that middlebrow taste for painted canvases that has largely eluded art historians. Mining the artist’s extensive publications, from early poetry of the 1840s to the late letters to Forest and Stream, Stebbins presents us with a man of strong opinions tempered by a dry wit. He convinces us that his literary counterpart is likely Mark Twain, who wrote admiringly of his work and even purchased a Florida landscape (unlocated; cat. 277).

Heade’s Marsh scenes brought him the greatest popular success. Critic Henry T. Tuckerman noted in 1867, just a few years after the artist’s initial renderings of the subject, that he “especially succeeds in representing marsh-lands, with hay-ricks, and the peculiar atmospheric effects thereof” (Book of the Artists, 542). Expanding upon his earlier discussion, Stebbins provides a fuller understanding of their uniqueness, arguing that the salt marsh prompted him to abandon the picturesque conventions of the Hudson River salon style to create a fresh mode of landscape art. “Heade was one of the first American painters to reject picturesque theory,” he tells us (116). These developments could be further explored against the visual culture of the Reconstruction era.

Marshes are but one dimension of Heade’s pictorial repertoire. He began his career as an itinerant painter of portraits, competent if uninspired. By 1858 he had moved to New York City, where he prophetically declared: “I feel as if I’d opened on a sort of new life!” (21). There he promptly set about reinventing himself as a landscapist, finding quarters in the new Tenth Street Studio Building—then the bastion of the Hudson River School—and forging a lifelong friendship with Frederic Church. True to his pen name of Didymus, the twin, Heade found outlets for the dualism in his nature by complementing his landscape studies with still-life painting. Stebbins chronicles the multiple formats, from floral arrangements in Victorian vases to the sensuous reclining blossoms.

Heade’s pictures of hummingbirds in combination with orchids (or occasionally passion flowers) discussed in Chapter 3 arguably stand as his most significant contribution. They represent an amalgam of his impressions of the tropical world: the birds he studies in Brazil in 1863–1864 and the flowers that captured his imagination on the island of Jamaica six years later. Visually dense and iconographically complex, they weave together Heade’s responses to contemporary science, art, and tropical America, which continued to engage him through his last years. The author’s discussion similarly knits together current research with new insights; his observations on the private nature of these images, for example, are intriguing and could have been further elaborated.

Chapter 5 documents those years after 1883, when Heade at the age of 64 bought his first home in St. Augustine, Florida, married for the first time, and found his first sustaining patron, Henry Flagler. His subject was the Florida swamps, striking for their affinity to his favored regions of Central and South America. Heade’s late Florida works have been largely dismissed by other scholars, but Stebbins makes the case that these so-called old-age works deserve further consideration.

Living with the artist for the better part of thirty-five years has led Stebbins to a heightened sense of his aesthetic contribution, personality, and place in the art world of his day. While obviously a labor of love, the book is free of the overly-laudatory, elegiac tone that mars some monographs. It was a fortunate day indeed in 1965 when Stebbins discovered Heade at Vose Galleries, for it led to this exemplary publication which will remain for decades to come the standard reference on the artist.

Katherine Manthorne
Professor, Art History Program, Graduate Center, City University of New York

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.