Martin Johnson Heade: An American Original

A master of light, atmosphere and mood, the 19th-century artist is now recognized as one of this country’s great Romantic painters

A small canvas caught the attention of art dealer Robert G. McIntyre at the "Romantic Painting in America" exhibition at New York City's Museum of Modern Art in 1944. Titled Thunder Storm on Narragansett Bay, the painting was by the 19th-century artist Martin Johnson Heade. "I was struck with the force of the thing," McIntyre later wrote, "with the powerful drama being enacted...a breath-taking sense of elemental fury."

Although Heade had shown his work frequently during his 65-year career, his reputation had been obscured by a shroud of critical indifference. For nearly half a century after his death, it was as if he had never painted a picture. The Museum of Modern Art exhibition, however, sparked new interest in his work. Today Heade is admired for his originality and for the subtle atmospheric effects, glorious light and sumptuous warmth of his canvases. In early 1999, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston paid $1.25 million for a Heade portrait of magnolias arrayed on a velvet ground. For years the painting had been used to cover a hole in the wall of a house in Indiana.

Art historian Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr., of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, has organized the most comprehensive exhibition of the painter's work ever mounted. On view at the Boston museum through January 17, the show will go on to Washington's National Gallery of Art and to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The exhibition reveals the full range of this idiosyncratic artist's particular genius. Included are seascapes and landscapes, paintings of hummingbirds and the tropics, and "portraits" of flowers. Together they represent, according to Stebbins, perhaps the most varied body of work by any 19th-century American painter.

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