Martin Johnson Heade, born on August 11, 1819, suffers from many misconceptions about his work. Critics try to enroll him into the Hudson River School and the Luminist School, but those labels always seem unsatisfactory. Although his landscapes stand as his most enduring works, they comprise less than half of his total output. Most of Heade’s work concerns still lives, portraits (which allowed him to survive financially in the 1850s), and small naturalist works of birds and flowers, such as Orchid and Hummingbird (above) from 1885, after he had moved to Florida in his final years.
Heade defies school labels almost as much as his early teacher, Edward Hicks. The spirituality of Hicks’ Peaceable Kingdom series, if not his technique, shines through much of Heade’s landscapes, such as Twilight Singing Beach (above), which he painted in South America, following the example of his friend Frederic Edwin Church. Whereas Church created huge epic scenes for public consumption, Heade created quieter works for private contemplation. Heade’s landscape of choice was the marsh landscape of the New England coast and later Florida’s coast, a vast departure from the mountain ranges and epic panoramas of the Hudson River School.
Rio de Janeiro Bay (above), painted by Heade in 1864, resembles much of the Luminist school in its presentation of light. His South American coastlines seem to glow even today. Such easily appreciated luminosity and exotic locales won Heade a wide audience in his day. In fact, his buying public grew so widely that many of his works are still discovered today in attics and garage sales, Antique Road Show style. There’s a democratic side to Heade’s work, a simple appeal, that he may also have learned from his mentor Hicks, whose simple folk art was designed for everyone.
The flip side of these vibrant skies is found in Heade’s Approaching Thunder Storm (above), modeled after Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island in 1859. In the threatening skies and inky waters of the bay, Heade may anticipate the oncoming American Civil War. The darkness he paints may be the darkness of the American soul torn apart over the issue of slavery. Heade fled American during the Civil War years to the safety and beauty of South and Central America. This final message left behind stands as just another fascinating facet of this versatile, multidimensional artist who is literally being rediscovered today.