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Saturday, June 21, 2014

Martin Johnson Heade

Two Fighting Hummingbirds with Two Orchids, 1875, Martin Johnson Heade
Martin Johnson Heade
One of the more interesting elements in the history of art is how certain subjects have a way of coming and going in popularity. So-called "fool the eye" still-lifes are an example. Few artists paint them today and fewer still actually sell them. Yet in the late 1800s, they were immensely popular. River steam boats are another example. Once quite popular in their prime, but not a big number on gallery walls after the turn of the century. Sailing ships (not racing yachts) declined in popularity as they were replaced by steam on the high seas. Their steam counterparts never replaced them to any great degree in the work of artist or on the walls of their patrons. During the 19th century, highly detailed paintings of flowers were big sellers, gracing Victorian parlors to the point you could almost smell the roses. The same was true of birds, and exotic tropical landscapes, especially sunsets. Today, you'd be hard-pressed to find any of these subject in any venue other than virtual galleries on the Internet (where everything is available).
Seascape, Sunrise, 1860, Martin Johnson Heade.
Any connection to the Hudson River School is more convenient than real.
Martin Johnson Heade, today, would be a starving artist. Heade painted incredibly beautiful exotic flowers, delicate, lovely hummingbirds, and dark, brooding sunsets (or sunrises, depending upon the title). His Two Fighting Hummingbirds with Two Orchids (top) is one of his best. Sometimes he did all of the above in a single painting. Except, perhaps, in a proper period parlor of precious Victorian proprieties, such art would appear quite out of place today. Artists, of course still paint florals, still paint airborne avians, and of course, landscape will never go out of style. But the flowers are light, bright, and sprightly, the birds are usually of the large predatory variety soaring about in magnificent freedom, and the landscapes, if they depict the sun at all, are seldom dark, nor do they do much brooding. All this, in spite of the fact that the broad range of acceptable painting content in our homes today has, in general, expanded during the past century or so.
General Samuel Houston, 1846,
Martin Johnson Heade
Rebecca Clark, 1857,
Martin Johnson Heade
Morpho Butterfly c.1864-65
Martin Johnson Heade
Heade was born in 1819. He died in 1904. He came out of Lumberville, Pennsylvania, now an artsy community on the Delaware River along the eastern border of the state. His father was a storekeeping. Heade studied under the self-taught Edward Hicks (of Peaceable Kingdom fame). His first works, dating from the 1840s, were, in fact, reasonably adept portraits (above, a craft he certainly didn't learn from Hicks). There's no evidence he ever got around to doing a self-portrait, though. During his formative years as an artist, Heade traveled broadly in Europe and flirted with the Hudson River School, though there's little such influence in his landscapes of the time (more often in the imaginations of today's art critics). His river art, is mostly tropical in nature originating from forays into the jungles of South and Central America. Relatively late in life, around 1883, Heade married and moved to St. Augustine, Florida, where such tropical delights were nearby and more easily accessible.
Sunrise, Florida, ca. 1880s, Martin Johnson Heade
Still Life with Apple Blossoms in a Nautilus Shell,
1870, Martin Johnson Heade
Still later in life, perhaps when he was unable to get out and about to the riverbanks, Heade took to painting flowers (often Magnolias, bottom) laid out on velvet (not velvet paintings). Some have classed Heade in with the Hudson River artists, but his early landscapes are much more in line with those of the Luminists. Though he seems to have made a decent living at his art, Heade was not well known during his lifetime. Only after his death have collectors discovered his work, not because it matches their décor, or that it fits neatly in line with the prevailing styles of his day, but because it doesn't. Martin Johnson Heade's paintings, such as his highly Victorian still-life (right), today can be found in most major museums, and surprisingly, in a few minor garage sales. Study his work carefully, you might get lucky.

Giant Magnolia on Blue Velvet Cloth, 1890, Martin Johnson Heade


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