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Newburyport Meadows, ca. 1876–81

Newburyport Meadows, ca. 1876–81

Martin Johnson Heade (1819 – 1904)

Renowned for his Luminist landscapes, particularly of storms at sea and northeastern salt marshes, as well as exquisite still life paintings, Martin Johnson Heade (originally Heed) was a versatile and exceptionally talented nineteenth-century American artist. He developed an original body of work in which atmospheric effects and exotic flowers and birds, closely observed, convey his vivid sense of the fleeting, fragile beauty of the natural world. Today, Heade’s meticulously painted canvases continue to enchant us with their opulent surfaces, rich textures, and jewel-like details.

The variety of Heade’s subjects was partly due to his peripatetic lifestyle. Born in 1819 in Lumberville, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, he trained in his early youth with the local Quaker painter Edward Hicks (1780-1849). After returning from an extended European trip between 1840 and 1842, he spent the next six years painting portraits and moving along the East Coast from New York to Trenton, Brooklyn, Richmond, and Philadelphia. In 1848 he set sail for a second long trip to Europe. His return to America in 1850 left him no more settled than before, and he continued to travel about and lived for brief periods in the cities of St. Louis, Trenton, Providence, and New Haven. It was in this decade that Heade turned to landscape painting. He began exploring the effects of light upon on the environment, an interest shared by other American Luminists including John C. Kensett, Fitz Hugh Lane and Sanford Gifford.


In 1859 Heade took a studio in the famous Tenth Street Studio building in New York where he met Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900), the Hudson River School painter noted for his panoramic vistas of Ecuador and Colombia. Church became one of Heade’s few close associates in the American art world, and it was probably Church who encouraged Heade to make his first visit to the southern hemisphere. In 1863 Heade set off for Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He made several subsequent trips to Latin America and the tropics visiting Nicaragua, Colombia, Panama, and Jamaica. In these journeys Heade explored the local flora and fauna, painting both large landscapes and small paintings of hummingbirds and orchids, which won him acclaim at gallery exhibitions in New York and Boston. Heade’s work from this period includes the series Gems of Brazil (1863 to 1864; created for an unrealized book), Hummingbird and Passion Flowers (1875 to 1885; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), and Orchids, Passion Flowers and Hummingbird (1875 to 1885; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York).

In 1883, at the age of sixty-four, Heade married in New York and moved to St. Augustine, Florida. He lived there for the rest of his life and continued to exhibit his work in northern cities like Boston and Springfield, Massachusetts. In 1885 at the invitation of his patron Henry Morrison Flager, the oil tycoon and hotel magnate, Heade set up his last studio in a building behind Flager’s Ponce de Leon Hotel in St. Augustine, and painted there until the very end of his life. In his two decades in St. Augustine, Heade was fascinated by the tropical flora of Florida. He painted Cherokee roses, orchids, and magnolias, often depicting the same flower over and over in various states of bloom in different compositions.

Like his earlier studies of tropical flowers, paintings of Heade’s mature period capture their botanical subjects with almost scientific accuracy, noting every line on every leaf, every particular mark and facet on every fruit or blossom. Unlike the earlier work, however, the later paintings rarely show subjects alive in their natural environments. After his move to St. Augustine, most of Heade’s floral still lifes depict flowers and, occasionally, fruit against plush velvet backdrops. Clipped and propped before the artist’s canvas, these lush, yet soon-to-wither specimens are a poignant contribution to the centuries-old genre of vanitas still lifes.

Heade’s work can be found in the collections of many major American museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. With several dozen paintings as well as numerous drawings and sketchbooks, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston holds the largest collection of his work. In 1999 and 2000 Heade was the subject of a major traveling exhibition curated by Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr. Today, interest in this important American artist remains strong—in 2004, the U.S. Postal Service issued a Martin Johnson Heade stamp.

Stebbins Jr., Theodore E. The Life and Work of Martin Johnson Heade: A Critical Analysis and Catalogue Raisonné. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.
Stebbins Jr., Theodore E. Martin Johnson Heade. Boston: Museum of Fine Art, 1999.

Biography from the Archives of AskART.