Turner to Monet
Three bands make up the painting: a blue sky, pink and grey clouds, the green meadow. A tree at left frames the composition, the central haystack provides a point of focus, a few animals add extra interest, and some exquisite reflections persuade us of the artist’s painterly skills. If we were to follow the thin, flat bayou meandering through the marshland, where would it take us? The distant hills have none of the grandeur or drama expected of landscapes at this period. Even the hand of the artist seems peculiarly absent. We are left with a haystack at the centre of the painting which, on closer examination, is a rather strangely shaped mound. Where, exactly, are we?
Marshlands – at the mouth of the Parker River in Ipswich, Massachusetts, or Hoboken in New Jersey, or Southport, Connecticut – held a great fascination for Heade; he produced more than a hundred paintings of the subject. These canvases have various descriptive titles: passing or approaching storms, sudden shower, after the rain, sunrise, sun breaking through, after the rain. Our attention is drawn to the natural forces and meteorological phenomena that shape these environments. Clearly, it was the changing atmospheric conditions and variations in light that attracted the artist. Is this what fascinates us still?
Heade began painting salt marshes in about 1858 and continued to paint them for more than four decades, in pairs, thematic groups, or as long series. He worked on marshland subjects intermittently, alternating them with Romantic mountain, tropical, southern or northern landscapes.1 At times, for variety, Heade included duck hunters or their hutches, hayricks or covered haystacks in his marsh scenes – he even created still-life paintings of marsh canvases propped up on trestles.2 Despite all these variants, even with staffage, the best of Heade’s paintings are characterised by a mysterious emptiness.
Just as a marsh is a transitional zone between land and water, Heade’s Luminist paintings sit slightly apart from those of the Hudson River School. Like many of his contemporaries, Heade travelled widely: in his early twenties he spent two years in Rome, travelled in Brazil from 1863 to 1864 and his life in the United States was peripatetic. Sunlight and shadow, the Newbury Marshes encapsulates both major European aesthetic traditions: idyllic, light-filled scenes or intense, northern specificity. Looking at Heade’s marsh paintings, those who value stillness may be think of Friedrich’s The Great Preserve c. 1832. Conditions of light in both paintings – twilight in Friedrich’s, the combination of sunlight and shadow in Heade’s – liberate colour from naturalism, contributing an intriguing violet tinge to each scene. Both artists use unnatural colour palettes, and only a few motifs. But like composers, they obtain seemingly endless variations from these notes. In Sunlight and shadow, the Newbury Marshes, Heade makes the ordinary exotic. Lurid colours give the painting a hallucinatory quality, the solitary haystack takes on mystical power, and the deceptive simplicity of the scene makes it seem hyper-real. Here the Sublime verges on the transcendental.
1 Heade and Church were close friends – Church passed his studio, in a 10th St New York, to Heade – and Church also encouraged his interest in South America.
2 See Gremlin in Studio II c. 1871–75, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford; for this and others, see Theodore E. Stebbins et al., The life and work of Martin Johnson Heade: a critical analysis and catalogue raisonné, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.