DescriptionThe Hon. Paul H. Buchanan, Jr. Collection
MARTIN JOHNSON HEADE (American, 1819-1904)
Sunset over the Marsh, c. 1876-82
Oil on canvas
13-1/4 x 26-1/4 inches (33.7 x 66.7 cm)
Signed lower right: M J Heade
Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Smith, East Orange, NJ;
With Sotheby Parke Bernet, New York, April 23, 1982, sale 4841M, lot 35;
With Sotheby's, New York, Dec. 6, 1984, sale 5255, lot 38;
with John H. Surovek Fine Arts, Palm Beach, FL;
Purchased from John Surovek through Richard York Gallery, April 18, 1987.
T. Stebbins, The Life and Work of Martin Johnson Heade, New Haven, 2000, no. 250, p. 263.
The salt marshes of the northeastern United States were of little interest to American landscape painters before Martin Johnson Heade started exploring them intensively during the 1860's. It wasn't that marshes had been intentionally avoided. It was worse: their pancake-flatness and relentless uniformity made them largely invisible to painters trained to look for subjects with features interesting enough to yield interesting pictures. "Marshes are monotonous and uninteresting in the extreme," was the basic sentiment. Literary figures were fairly silent on the salt marshes, too, until Heade began painting them at dawn, at twilight, in the rain, and in the moonlight with such heart-rending tenderness that a re-evaluation was eventually in order. In 1878, around the same time Heade produced this radiant Marsh Landscape at Sunset with a delicate heron standing near the water in the foreground, American poet James Russell Lowell wrote this ode to the marsh:
"Dear marshes! vain to him the gift of sight
Who cannot in their varied incomes share,
From every season drawn of shade and light,
Who sees in them but levels brown and bare;
Each change of storm and sunshine scatters free
On them its largess of variety,
For nature with cheap means still works her wonders rare."
(from "An Indian-Summer Reverie")
Martin Johnson Heade was doing something new in American landscape painting with his marshscapes, and that newness was a direct violation of the standard practices of the Hudson River School formulas. Specifically, his choice to paint a landscape which has a flat uninterrupted expanse, an absence of framing devices such as a canopy of trees, a rocky wedge of foreground or a jutting precipice, and virtually no focal point at all patently disregarded the rules for a successful (i.e., picturesque) landscape set forth in 1792 by the Reverend William Gilpin in Three Essays: On Picturesque Beauty, On Picturesque Travel, and On Sketching Landscape. The way Church, Bierstadt, Moran, Durand, Cole and the others traveled on sketching tours, seeking out specific kinds of dramatic scenery, followed Gilpin's ideas more or less to the letter. Heade, on the other hand, probably first considered painting marshes when he was out hunting for birds in them.
According to Heade scholar Ted Stebbins, it isn't all that surprising that Martin Johnson Heade would become one of the earliest proponents of "anti-picturesque" landscape painting in America because he was a bit of an outsider. Largely self-taught, highly imaginative, independent, eager and driven, he never settled exclusively into one artistic specialty but rather ranged all over the map in terms of genres he liked to explore in paint. He produced portraits, genre scenes, history paintings, landscapes, marines and still lifes - many of them at the same time in his career. Though he did exhibit some of his paintings at the National Academy of Design during the late 1860's and 70's, he was never accepted into that "club" even as an associate member, and never became a part of the New York art establishment. He was also a passionate naturalist, willing to travel by himself, far afield with extremely limited means to seek out plants and animals which fascinated him. For example he went deep into Brazil to study his beloved orchids and hummingbirds. Although he became a fast friend of the most celebrated and honored of all the Hudson River landscapists, Frederic Church, who admired him very much, and even used Church's famous Tenth Street Studio space when Church was away, Heade had an almost antithetical approach to Nature to Church and the other Hudson River School figures. While they exalted the earth in their paintings, and sought to capture what was most beautiful and characteristic about it, Heade showed the earth at its most tender and uncharacteristic. Stebbins perceptively notes that Heade did not shy from conveying a sense of foreboding or even danger in his landscapes. Some of his overcast marsh scenes are especially pregnant with an overpowering sense of loneliness, and a tangible concern with the passage of time because they are so incredibly still. To some extent these qualities can be felt in his fair weather marshscapes as well, the present example among them. Heade's smooth way of applying paint as well as his very low point of view contributes to the distinctive mood of nearly all his marsh scenes. As Stebbins also noted, "Although Church established the twilight theme in American art, it was his friend Heade who probably painted landscapes at twilight more than any other painter. The marsh at sunset was a lonely place, and one that clearly had special resonance" for him (p. 118).
While hunting probably drew Heade to the salt marshes initially, the awareness that he could explore them in endless variation in paint kept him coming back to them for 45 years of his life. He essentially painted the salt marshes for his entire mature career (1859-1904). The first he painted were in Newburyport, Massachusetts (1859-1868), and then after moving to New Jersey, he studied those near Hoboken (1869-1904). However, since Heade continued drawing upon the large body of sketches he had made at Newburyport even after moving to New Jersey, his marsh scenes from 1869 on often combine motifs from both locations.
After trying a variety of approaches in the earliest marsh paintings (1859-63), the artist concentrated increasingly on depicting haystacks, water and sky without extraneous detail. In general the New Jersey marsh pictures have flatter topography than those painted in Massachusetts, which have more decorative meandering creeks and more fog. The New Jersey scenes, such as the present work, tend to have clearer atmosphere. Over time the painter also exaggerated the horizontality of his support to create a vaster sense of space, which contributes to the impression of stillness and solitude he clearly sought. The demand was so great for Heade's marsh pictures that he painted more of them than any other specific subject. Nearly 120 marsh pictures are known today, amounting to about one-fifth of the painter's oeuvre.
The most distinctive vertical motifs within Heade's marshscapes are the stacks of salt marsh hay piled up on staddles to dry. Far tinier than any Monet painted, Heade's haystacks function not as subject but as rhythm within the expanse of the marsh. They are like notes on a staff, marking intervals of closeness and distance. Although it appears to be the humblest of natural products, salt marsh hay was, in fact, an important crop in New England during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Salt hay farming became a prominent industry in New Jersey during Colonial times because of its multiple uses (notably winter livestock food and thatching) and its resistance to rot. The industry grew in popularity because salt hay not required little cultivation and it could be harvested twice a year. Heade was doubtless aware of salt hay's importance, but his depictions of it seem more important formally than iconographically.
The large and complex Salon frame surrounding this work by Heade is probably original to the painting (7 ¼ inches wide and approximately 4 ½ inches deep). It is completely consistent with the way the artist chose to present his work. In fact, Heade seemed to have cared a great deal about the framing of his paintings, and as Stebbins points out: "Even when he was experiencing hard times in the early eighties, he was adamant in instructing Eben Loomis, a friend selling a picture for him in Washington, to have it framed by his regular framer, James S. Earle of Philadelphia. Heade urged Loomis not to show the painting 'out of the frame, on any account.' He regarded the frame as part of the painting because "[frames] provide luxuriant windows through which the viewer sees the picture; their pale gold-leafed surfaces are highly reflective, echoing the effects of light. . .while their graduated mass focuses attention on [the] compositions and accentuates their illusion of depth" (p. 84).
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