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    Martin Johnson Heade (American, 1819-1904)
    Sunset: Sky and Marsh, 1867
    Oil on canvas
    12 x 28-1/4 inches (30.5 x 71.8 cm)
    Signed and dated lower left: M J Heade - 67

    The artist;
    Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Robinson, Washington D.C.;
    Mrs. Clifford Arrick, Indianapolis, Indiana;
    Mr. and Mrs. James M. Walker, Massachusetts;
    Estate of Richard and Arlean Walker, New Hampshire;
    Private collection, Virginia, by descent;
    [With]Debra Force Fine Art, New York, 2009;
    Acquired by the present owner from the above.

    The scenic salt marshes along the Northeastern coast of the United States were among Martin Johnson Heade's favorite and most highly acclaimed subjects, accounting for a significant portion of his oeuvre. True to the Luminist tradition, Heade painted his marshscapes at dawn and at dusk, in bright sunlight and under ominous storm clouds, recording the ever changing variations of light and atmosphere prevalent along the New England shore. In choosing a very flat, almost featureless landscape to paint -- usually at the bookends of the day, when it is hardest to see let alone describe the light effects in paint -- the artist demanded a great deal of himself as an artist. Heade scholar Theodore E. Stebbins, has noted that Heade also demanded great originality of himself in choosing the marsh as his subject: "Though the marsh was familiar and ubiquitous, it was a new subject for the American painter. Equally important, the marsh was simply a place Heade loved: on the one hand it represented untouched nature-and ideal place for hunting and fishing-on the other it was a natural farmland, where hay was harvested and stacked. If Heade was an intermediary figure between the Hudson River School and the next generation, then too the marsh might be seen as an intermediate landscape that lies somewhere between wilderness and the pastoral" ( T.E. Stebbins, Jr., Martin Johnson Heade, Boston, Massachusetts, 1999, p. 29).

    Sunset: Sky and Marsh, painted in 1867 shortly following the end of the Civil War, is an important and ambitious work from the artist's first period of Haystack landscapes. The painting records a very late moment in the day, just before the sun slips below the horizon. These are the final minutes of daylight, and the richly saturated colors of the sky are on the brink of beginning their fade to black. The landscape is a tour-de-force of observation and painterly skill, for its features are becoming a near-silhouette against the still-bright sky as the sun sinks. Heade masterfully described the soon-to-be featureless landscape with an arsenal of greens, ochres, and umbers. In a letter dated May 25, 2010, Stebbins writes: "This is a fine example of Heade's work....1867-68 was an important time in Heade's life, one where he began experimenting with a wide variety of formats in both his marsh subjects and in his marines...Sunset is one of several horizontal compositions that are more than twice as wide as they are high. It probably represents the marshes near Newbury, Massachusetts, which Heade often depicted. In format, it relates to Ipswich Marshes at the New Britain Museum of Art, which also has a setting sun, a complex orange sky, and a dark landscape below. In [this] work, Heade made the haystacks quite small, but gave a sense of their massive scale by rendering the two men and their dog at left as very diminutive, and by depicting the haystacks themselves as receding toward the far-distant horizon."

    The northeastern salt marshes were of little interest to American landscape painters before Heade started exploring them intensively during the 1860's. "Heade somehow felt at home in the marsh--a buggy, muddy, unimposing place, which only today is being recognized by conservationists for its great ecological values. Clement and Hutton noted in 1880 that Heade; ... has been very successful is in his views of the Hoboken and Newburyport meadows, for which the demand has been so great that he has probably painted more of them than any other class of subjects...' He sought out marshes all over the coastal United States; he painted them in Marshfield, Massachusetts, in New Jersey, in Florida, and probably in many other places. The marshes have an anonymity that he must have liked; in the marsh he was alone, with only an occasional cow or farmer in the distance. He had a subject that was suited to his mentality, which was essentially that of the still-life painter, and he painted virtually the same scene over and over, under varying conditions of time and weather, making small adjustments, always trying to paint the perfect picture." (T. Stebbins, Martin Johnson Heade, Boston, Massachusetts, 1969, n.p.)

    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, 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")

    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.

    As Stebbins has observed, it isn't all that surprising that the artist 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 (T. Stebbins, The Life and Work of Martin Johnson Heade, New Haven, 2000, 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, from 1859 to 1904. The first he painted were in Newburyport, Massachusetts (1859-1868), the likely location depicted in the present work.

    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.

    In Sunset: Sky and Marsh Heade places distinct emphasis on the flatness of the marsh, drawing the viewer into the receding space with a hint of golden sunlight along the horizon line. The subliminal calmness of Heade's landscapes is reinforced by his use of light in conjunction with a strict geometric foundation that underlies his ordering of the elements of water, land and sky. Earl A. Powell writes, "Heade, more so than [Fitz Hugh] Lane, experimented with the formal geometry of space that emphasized infinity in more exaggerated but extremely effective compositions. ...At this time Heade also began to paint the pictures of the Marshfield and Newbury marshes which were so conceptually precocious and clearly established his artistic reputation as a major contributor to the tradition of the sublime. These paintings are paradigmatic of the open composition of luminism and emphasize wide-angled perspective recession. As such, they create the sensation of sublime space more than other landscape art of the same period" (American Light: The Luminist Movement 1850-1875, Washington, D.C., 1980, pp. 82-83).

    Condition Report*: Lined canvas; there appears to be faint craquelure throughout; under UV exam, there appears to be thin lines of inpainting along right and left extreme edges to address frame wear; minor small areas of inpainting to address craquelure in lower sky and horizon line as well as in the lower left corner; two thin lines of inpainting through the largest hay bale to the left.   Framed Dimensions 21.75 X 38.25 Inches
    *Heritage Auctions strives to provide as much information as possible but encourages in-person inspection by bidders. Statements regarding the condition of objects are only for general guidance and should not be relied upon as complete statements of fact, and do not constitute a representation, warranty or assumption of liability by Heritage. Some condition issues may not be noted in the condition report but are apparent in the provided photos which are considered part of the condition report. Please note that we do not de-frame lots estimated at $1,000 or less and may not be able to provide additional details for lots valued under $500. All lots are sold "AS IS" under the Terms & Conditions of Auction.

    Auction Info

    Auction Dates
    November, 2015
    16th Monday
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