Martin Johnson Heade: The Enigmatic Self

by Barbara Novak



Painting the flowers obviously demanded a high degree of nervous concentration. Secret, intimate, stereoscopically detailed, they solicit the same attention from the eye as a whisper does from the ear. They are Heade's version of ecstatic apprehension, and in their concentration and synthesis of particulars approach the condition of lyric poetry. How does this reading refer to the pungent personality of their author?

McIntyre had stressed the way in which Heade's personality was inseparably woven into and through his work... beyond all other artists of his time.[22] Would a better knowledge of Heade's temperament, to some degree a dissenting one among his colleagues, serve to illuminate aspects of his art? More than most of his generation Heade remains an enigmatic figure, his complexities suspending his work in a problematic zone between darkness and light, between hints of utopia and dystopia, delicacy and power, flowers and storms, agitated ecstasy and extended horizontal repose. While establishing connections between work and maker, between intention and reception, between the artist and his persona is a high-risk area, one feels an intense need to know more about this artist, his habits, his opinions, his desires. Along with his missing letters to Church, there is a missing Heade.

Heade's contradictory affinities have drawn increasing attention, and much of it centers on moving his work away from more optimistic interpretations into darker territory. Interpretations of the same painting, the same oeuvre, can be radically -- and convincingly -- different. Such conflicts are useful in that they introduce new tensions and ideas into the discourse, thereby enlarging the arena for discussion and promising potential new interpretations. Martin Christadler has, with his usual eloquence, argued that the Transcendentalists had beneath their apparent calm confidence and quietude, disturbed accents of concern and unease, distinct semantic tensions and ambivalences.[23] Applying this insight to the luminists, he finds in both Fritz Hugh Lane and Heade bleakness and emptiness.[24] Christadler's reading tends to evict the spiritual and ideal quotient that I find in luminist art,[25] filling the sense of void he feels in luminist art with secular anxieties. Recent readings of Heade have provocatively emphasized the dystopian possibilities inherent in some of his landscapes in the context of a mephitic wilderness (Miller),[26] and ingeniously read the storm paintings through the social context, invoking reception-theory (Cash). Heade is, one might say, the joker in the luminist pack, and his formal consonance with that mode is sometimes fused with an expressive strangeness. His transcendental reach is made through subjects least tractable to luminist duties -- storms, marshes -- which are then transformed with a glassy perfection. This is of course another of the contradictions that give Heade's work its unsettling tone.

To follow up Cash's meticulous examination of the storms capes, it is not difficult to imagine them stimulating an emotional echo in viewers implicated in the contradictory emotions of the Civil War. But some of the greatest of the storm pictures were executed after the Civil War was over (Approaching Storm, Beach Near Newport, 1867; Thunderstorm on Narragansett Bay, 1868). If the storm paintings are to be taken primarily as cultural metaphors we are obliged to continue this reading into the anxieties of the Reconstruction period.[27] But since the world is ever difficult, might one not legitimately ask when we can stop?

Thunderstorm on Narragamett Bay was finished perhaps in February, 1868 and exhibited in March of that year.[28] That October, in a sympathetic letter, Church refers to Heade's apprehensiom over his father's illness and its consequences. Heade's father died some months later.[29] We do not know when this fatal illness began, or when Heade first wrote to Church, but if we are to follow the reasoning that searches out specific cause and effect behind the tone or mood of an artist's work, could some of the darkness of the storm pictures of this period be attributed to this family crisis? In this context, J. Gray Sweeney's reading of the picture as related to Cole's Voyage of Life series, and specifically to Old Age seems insightful,[30] though I feel Heade's darkness of mood due perhaps to his father's illness may have been sufficient motivation, without pictorial ancestry.

Other less dramatic, but to my mind, telling issues suggest themselves. Should the contextual arguments be balanced against the evidence that by 1860 meteorological awareness had been rapidly enhanced in the United States, something of profound interest to landscape painters? Some 500 weather stations were reporting to the Smithsonian even as Heade was painting his stormscapes.[31] Only a few years earlier, in his Crayon essay of 1855, which Heade doubtless knew, Cropsey, reaffirming Ruskin, had called the rain region owing its nearness, and stronger grade of color; and the more powerful impressions it is capable of producing... susceptible of the highest and noblest results in Art... Its impressiveness and gloom have led artists to choose it in composition, involving great and powerful emotions...[32] Feasibly, therefore, there might also have been a theoretical impulse behind Heade's interest in storms.

If in a post-modernist climate, authorial intention has been devalued, a useful distinction can, I think, be made between intention and authorial motivation. There is always something mysterious about the way an artist finds his or her landscape, that is, the particular configuration of land, sea, light and mood that becomes a significant and defying trope, igniting those sign systems which, in somewhat circular fashion, return to revision the landscape again. Did Heade, whose emotional life does not, from the scanty evidence, seem to have been tranquil, experience, in the obscure realms of motivation, a tropism for the drama, risk and darkness of the storm? To consider this does not detach him from his cultural context, but might add a stronger personal factor to the way in which we read his responses to that context. Historical inquiry generally requires that it see its own face, its own methodology, in a rational mirror. That mirror still offers an ambiguous reflection of this artist and his art.

The contradictions in Heade's work may well reflect the ambiguities of his multiple self. The salt marsh pictures, and many of the seascapes, luminist in their classic structure, parallel with their translucent light and crystalline clarity the transcendental concerns of an Emerson or a Thoreau. But in some of the landscapes, especially the storms capes, space becomes anticlassic, even surreal, and emptiness assumes the unsettling potency to which Christadler refers. Through luminist hyper-realism many of the flower paintings also tend to locate themselves in the emotional precincts of the surreal. They also run parallel to Asian art and philosophy, even as their Darwinian energies challenge the earlier ideal premises of a world of faith based on a providential blueprint. The real and surreal, the classic and the anti-classic, transcendent light and the power of darkness, emptiness and passion -all of these in different combinations, converge in Heade's work, and perhaps in his still enigmatic persona.

Was he an idealist, hard put to find that ideal in the world around him? Did he find it only in the flowers he so immortalized, through a re-representation that was in the main a re-creation? Or in the marshes, their horizontal cloud-steps laddering to heaven, where he could impose the mathematics of an absolute he restlessly sought? As to the storms -did they retain for him some of the terror of an older concept of sublimity, awesome and uncontrollable? Are the paintings empty and bleak? Filled with spirit and light? He divides us with his version of the classic conundrum of the glass; half empty or half full. Situated at a median point between hope and despair, filled with contradiction, his enigma compels the viewer to seek the balance within his doubled sensibility, so aptly self-named Didymus, the twin.


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