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A Late Bloomer

Martin Johnson Heade's talent took a while to surface and his career is just now being sorted out, but a LACMA show reveals his undeniable giftedness. Art Review


The strange and beguiling American artist Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904) painted diligently for 20 years before he made a painting you'd want to look at twice. But once he did, he didn't let up. A Victorian sensualist of uncanny inventiveness, Heade turned out a succession of gorgeous pictures you long to see again and again.

It's a career that spans two-thirds of the 19th century but has only recently begun to be sorted out. The retrospective of 61 paintings and several drawings and sketchbooks that opened Sunday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is a tightly selected survey that lays out his major themes with clarity and precision. Organized by leading Heade scholar Theodore E. Stebbins Jr. of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, the show reveals a 19th century American artist finally unlike any other. If you didn't know Heade's paintings before, see it and you'll never forget them.

Heade was born into modest circumstances in rural Pennsylvania, where he first learned about painting from the now much-loved folk artist Edward Hicks (he of "Peaceable Kingdom" fame). From 1839 to the late 1850s he made his living as an itinerant portrait painter, constantly on the move--New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Missouri, Illinois, Rhode Island--with a two-year stint in Rome, Paris and London in between.

The retrospective doesn't include any of this youthful work, which would mostly help to show the huge leap he accomplished around 1859. In addition to portraits, he had painted a few genre scenes, done a number of copies of works by other artists and ventured tentatively into landscape subjects. Then, he painted his first view of the salt marshes along the Massachusetts and Connecticut shore, as well as a dark and ominous view over a watery inlet, "Approaching Thunder Storm," that changed his course forever. He was 40 years old.

"Approaching Thunder Storm" is the first work in the LACMA show, and it lays out certain of the features of Heade's art that would make his subsequent production so remarkable.

The broad, horizontal canvas, one and a half times as wide as it is high, shows a man and his dog seated in the foreground and looking out over the water. Another man in a rowboat heads for shore, a white sailboat crisply silhouetted against the ink-black inlet and dark clouds gathering across the top edge of the canvas. Two razor-sharp spits of land come together in the center, like the closing jaws of a pincer, as the little sailboat seems to race to get through before they close.

In this tiny, mundane drama of an impending spring storm, most remarkable is the quality of light. The land fairly glows in golden-green hues, radiant against the blackness of still water reflecting gathering clouds, while light fades from the graying sky. Heade has painted everything like glass, with a slick precision that recalls seeing the world come into sudden focus through a lens.

"Approaching Thunder Storm" is the first example of what I think of as Heade's constant objective as an artist from then on: He's the painter of the eternal in-between. Flux, continuous movement and inescapable change are at the steady center of his art, always represented by nature, and the sense of fleeting time is paradoxically heightened by having been meticulously frozen into place.

During the next decade Heade elaborated the eternal in-between in a variety of extraordinary ways. His most compelling invention was the extensive series of salt marsh views--more than 150 examples of which survive, 13 of them gathered in one gallery for the show. The marsh is a particular feature of the variegated American landscape that hadn't attracted other painters before, including the Hudson River painters who were in search of more romantically exalted sites. But with its watery fields, stacks of cultivated grasses, low horizon line and constantly shifting atmosphere, the salt marsh was ideal for Heade--a landscape literally defined by in-between-ness.

Historians have noted that this 10-year period, so amazingly fecund for an artist of heretofore small achievement, coincides with the most tumultuous episode in the nation's young life. The wrenching Civil War and its tattered aftermath may well have been a factor; Heade, a fervent supporter of the Union, wrote of his anguish and distress at the event.

In the show's excellent catalog the curator suggests that the pivot was rather less dramatic, more pragmatic: Heade had moved into a 10th Street studio in New York, where several gifted landscapists of the Hudson River School provided a beneficial artistic collegiality that the itinerant painter had never had before. Among a community of rigorous artists, and with two decades of learning his craft behind him, Heade's work suddenly matured.

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