Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on February 14, 2005 in Resource Library with permission of Eaton Fine Art, Inc. The essay was excerpted from the illustrated catalogue for the exhibition Martin Johnson Heade: A Survey: 1840 -1900 held December 20, 1996 - February 22, 1997 at Eaton Fine Art, West Palm Beach, FL. Images accompanying the text in the exhibition catalogue were not reproduced with this reprinting. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you are interested in obtaining a copy of the catalogue, please contact Eaton Fine Art at either this web address or phone number:


Martin Johnson Heade: The Enigmatic Self

by Barbara Novak



It is in the nature of scholarly inquiry to frame questions, which solicit provisional answers that gradually accumulate into a working consensus about the past. Each contemporary moment, cued in large part by its immediate interests, designs modes of inquiry which illuminate the lives and works of even the most intractable figures. Reputations repeatedly weighed on historical scales generally come to a balance deemed acceptable, unless disturbed by some new information or potentially radical idea. Because of its puzzling variety, absence of information, and a consensus that refuses to settle, the art of some figures resists this process. The art in question thus remains provocative and curiously contemporary insofar as it invites fresh modes of inquiry and speculation.

Almost alone among his contemporaries, Martin Johnson Heade and his art continue to beguile and puzzle us. Complexity and contradiction are inherent in the art and in the personality of its creator. Even now the art -- a unique and original art -- reverses the process of inquiry and succeeds in delivering to us questions to which we have not yet framed satisfactory answers. Few artists of the American 19th Century have this capacity to surprise us.

Of Heade's variety there can be no question. He was a devoted gardener and self-styled monomaniac rearer of hummingbirds. A painter of flowers and luminist landscapes. A poet. A naturalist and sportsman who signed his columns with the pseudonym "Didymus", which does double duty both as the surname of the doubting St. Thomas, and "The Twin".[1] A preservationist who worried about the extinction of the green turtle.[2] A thoroughly mysterious figure who married and settled down in St. Augustine, Florida in his mid-sixties and before that, traveled thousands upon thousands of miles in his nervous, almost ceaseless wanderings.[3]

Usually what is called an artist's "circle" reflects enough of him or her to instruct us on the secular, everyday existence. Here information is scanty. Heade's closest artist friend, whose studio he shared and sometimes sublet at 51 West Tenth Street in New York, was an artist almost diametrically opposite in his program and practice, Frederic Edwin Church, with whom he carried on an extensive correspondence. Heade preserved some of Church's letters, which are available to us at the Archives of American Art, but only one of Heade's letters to Church can be found there.[4]

Reading Church's letters is like listening to one side of a telephone conversation. We try to imagine the person at the other end. Church, seven years Heade's junior, seems to have assumed an affectionate, teasing posture towards the older man, In his rare letter of 1868 Heade banters back, giving as much as he takes. On one occasion Church teased Heade -- with the assistance of some amusing sketches -about turning back in his search for the Santa Marta Mountain in South America, promising not to tell Bierstadt (whom Heade claimed wouldn't speak to him)...but only your friends. [5] The tone of the correspondence is that of professional intimates who enjoyed each other and wrote, particularly Heade, frequently.

But who were these friends to whom Church refers? We know of some followers who have compromised the authenticity of a few charcoal drawings ascribed to Heade. We know something of his patrons. After he settled in Florida, he was fortunate to have the patronage and support of Henry Flagler. Recent discussion of the storm paintings has indicated the interest of such figures as Henry Ward Beecher in his work [6]. But apart from Church and F.O.C. Darley, close friendships with other artists seem to have been few. He succeeded in alienating several establishments. The artist members of the National Academy of Design blackballed him,[7] and he was refused membership by the Century Association, [8] comprised of virtually the same group. Heade apparently did not fit in, no more than do his paintings reside in easy categories. Did his temperament -- from a reading of his Didymus articles, a seemingly caustic one -- bring him into conflict with his colleagues? His biographer Theodore Stebbins' suggestion that he was a loner rings true.[9] Nearly a hundred years after his death, he manages to stimulate our curiosity and at the same time allows it little purchase.

The 1869 letter from Heade to Church has only recently added to our meager store of personal knowledge. He did gain admittance to the Union League though he was agin clubs but wanted the use of the exhibition room.[10] The same letter indicates that he had at least a chatting relationship with William H. Beard and the critic H.T. Tuckerman. Most importantly, Heade mentions frequent lunches with the Reverend Louis L. Noble, author of Cole's biography, and of After Icebergs with a Painter, based on his trip to the Arctic with Church. One wishes one were present at the table to listen to the Reverend's jokes, in this instance at least, appreciatively relayed by Heade to Church who had been traveling in Europe and the Holy Land.

From the feisty tone of the Didymus columns in Forest and Stream Heade seems to have had little patience for social niceties, perhaps a result of the contradictions his divided personality entertained. Though lovingly feeding his pet hummingbirds sugar water, he coolly shot hummingbird intruders who wanted to usurp their place. He railed against rich sports monopolies and land speculators and by 1892, was asking Is our new country already worn out? [11] Though this was not a new ecological sentiment, in Heade it issued as much from the sportsman/naturalist as from the artist.

Part of the reason that Heade does not reside easily within the psychological parameters of his contemporaries was a certain quirkiness in his work, a very late trace of the gothic imagination. Stebbins' indispensable biography stresses Heade's affinities with the puritanical Hawthorne[12] and the transcendental Thoreau. To these, I would add Herman Melville, born just 10 days earlier, in 1819, and sharing the same place on the zodiacal wheel. Melville, like Heade, was another traveler and loner who endured considerable neglect during his lifetime. Like Melville and Thoreau, Heade who married so late in life, may have been uneasy with women, though Church ribs him in an 1869 letter about his attentions to the little ladies and asks Do you still imbibe the tender crab and the sparkling glass at the midnight hour in the Room of the cheerful Mrs. L.?[13] The current obsession with gender issues requires that his desire be located in some plausible venue.


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