Martin Johnson Heade

Here’s another work that caught my eye in a byway of the massive Turner to Monet show.

headeMartin Johnson Heade. Sunlight and Shadow: the Newbury Marshes c.1871-75, oil on canvas 30.5 x 67.3 cm
John Wilmerding Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.

Three bands make up the painting: blue sky, pink and grey clouds, green meadow. The Marshlands of Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Connecticut attracted Martin Johnson Heade greatly and inspired him to produce more than a hundred paintings of this subject. Heade began painting salt marshes in about 1858 and continued to paint them over the next forty years, in pairs, thematic groups or long series. The canvases have various descriptive title passing or approaching storms, sudden shower, after the rain, sunrise and sun breaking through, after the rain. Clearly it was the changing atmospheric conditions and variations in light which fascinated the artist. Despite all these variants, the best of Heade’s paintings are characterised by mysterious emptiness.

Heade’s American Luminist paintings sit slightly apart from those of his contemporaries of the Hudson River School. Sunlight and Shadow: the Newbury Marshes encapsulates both European aesthetic traditions of idyllic, light-filled scenes as well as intense, Northern specificity. Heade makes an ordinary landscape exotic: lurid colours give the painting a hallucinatory quality, the solitary haystack takes on mystical powers, and the deceptive simplicity of the scene makes it seem hyperreal. Here the sublime verges on the transcendental.