National Gallery of Art

Washington, D.C.


Photos from left to right: View of the West Building of the National Gallery of Art (1941) Looking East Towards the U.S. Capitol along Constitution Avenue, NW, photo by Dennis Brack / Black Star; After Dark: View of the East Building from the West Building, Fourth Street Entrance, Opened 1978, Architect: I. M. Pei & Partners, photo by Dennis Brack / Black Star; Interior of East Building atrium of National Gallery of Art, featuring Alexander Calder mobile; photo: John Hazeltine, ©1987


Martin Johnson Heade


The first retrospective exhibition in thirty years of the work of Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904), widely recognized as one of America's greatest romantic painters, will be on view at the National Gallery of Art through May 7, 2000. Heade produced perhaps the most varied body of work of any American painter of the nineteenth century. Seventy-four paintings--including landscapes, seascapes, still lifes, and botanicals--are presented. Martin Johnson Heade is organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where it was on view last fall. It will travel to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 28 May - 17 August 2000.

"In an era when American artists excelled in portraying nature, Heade stands out for his unusual and diverse subject matter," said Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art. "We are grateful to the private collectors and museums who have been extremely generous in granting the loans of Heade's greatest paintings."

In his own lifetime Heade was not considered an important artist and was nearly forgotten after his death in 1904. Not until 1943, with the rediscovery of the mysterious Thunder Storm on Narragansett Bay (1868), was the work of this inventive and prolific artist collected and studied. The son of a farmer, Heade was born in 1819. He began to paint at the age of 18, traveling the length and breadth of America and journeying to Europe to learn his trade, while painting portraits, genre scenes, and copies of American and European portraits.

Becoming interested in landscape painting in 1857, Heade developed his own approach to the subject, taking elements of technique from the Hudson River School and adapting them to his uses. He was a keen observer of the physical world, but was also a romantic and a loner. Where his contemporaries in the Hudson River School presented epic sunset scenes of the Catskill Mountains or of the Hudson Valley, Heade painted salt marshes of the East Coast. More than 120 views of salt marshes make up one-fifth of his total output. In works such as Salt Marsh Hay (c. 1866-1876) Heade presents the marsh in the dramatic light of an approaching thunderstorm. In Hayfields: A Clear Day (c. 1871-1880), the flooded marsh shimmers in the golden rays of the afternoon sun.

Another of Heade's singular subjects was hummingbirds, which he depicted either on their own or in juxtaposition with equally exotic tropical orchids or passionflowers. Hummingbirds are referred to as "gems" or "jewels" because of their iridescent feathers, and Heade was, as he put it, a "monomaniac" on the subject. He painted many small works for an unrealized book that was to have been titled The Gems of Brazil. The paintings, created in the Gems format--vertical composition, approximately 12 by 10 inches, depicted both the male and female of various species. It is not known conclusively if they were painted for the book, but a renowned series of small hummingbird paintings, also called The Gems of Brazil (c. 1864-1865), are here on loan from the preeminent Heade collector of our time, Richard Manoogian. An Amethyst Hummingbird with a White Orchid (c. 1875-1890), from a later series, sets a tiny "gem" beside an orchid of similar coloring (the white-and-purple Lealia purpurata), whose petals echo the cleft shape of the hummingbird's tail. (left: Cattleya Orchid and Three Brazilian Hummingbirds, 1871, oil on panel, 13 3/4 x 18 inches, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation)

Heade's last series of works were painted in Florida. Giant Magnolias on a Blue Velvet Cloth is a horizontal composition in which the voluptuous white flowers seem almost to glow against the soft, dark velvet, as the glossy leaves reflect the light. Heade's haunting painting seems to have more to do with the painter's memory and imagination than with fact. He was still painting up until a few weeks before his death in 1904. (right: Giant Magnolias on a Blue Velvet Cloth, c 1885-1895, oil on canvas, 15 1/8 x 24 3/16 inches, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of The Circle of the National Gallery of Art in Commemoration of its 10th Anniversary)

The exhibition at the National Gallery is coordinated by Franklin Kelly, curator of American and British paintings, National Gallery of Art. The exhibition's organizing curator is Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr., former chair, art of the Americas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The exhibition in Washington is made possible by The Circle of the National Gallery of Art. In 1996 The Circle, an annual-giving program, also made possible the Gallery's acquisition of Heade's Giant Magnolias on a Blue Velvet Cloth (c. 1885-1895). Support for the exhibition and accompanying catalogue has been provided by The Henry Luce Foundation and the Vira I. Heinz Endowment.

A fully illustrated catalogue presents new scholarly research in the study of Martin Johnson Heade's paintings with an introductory essay by Stebbins is available in the Museum bookstore.

Read more in Resource Library Magazine on the National Gallery of Art

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

Please click on thumbnail images bordered by a red line to see enlargements.

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