Largely forgotten by scholars and collectors after his death, Martin Johnson Heade was one of the most varied and inventive painters of the 19th century. He is now recognized as one of the most important American artists of his generation and unique in devoting equal time to landscape, marine and still-life subjects. Heade created evocative marsh scenes and powerful canvases of dramatic thunderstorms at sea that established him as a landscapist. At the same time, he produced scintillating Victorian flower still lifes and exquisite studies of South American hummingbirds, explorations that would culminate in the extraordinary, wholly original combination of jewel-like birds with lush, tropical orchids.
Organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, from its collection of Heade’s work, this exhibition presents the artist’s great creative range in examples from an early folk portrait to a late magnolia still life. It underscores Heade’s innovative approach by juxtaposing these paintings with related subjects by his predecessors and his contemporaries. While there have been monographic shows spanning his lifetime or those focusing on a specific aspect of his career, Heade’s paintings have never been shown in this context.
His seascapes will be displayed with those by earlier artists including Washington Allston and Thomas Doughty to establish the tradition of that genre, as well as with work by Heade’s peers, including John Frederick Kensett and Fitz Henry Lane. His marshes and tropical views will be featured alongside landscapes by Alvan Fisher, Albert Bierstadt, Asher B. Durand and Frederic Church. Similarly, ornithological and botanical illustrations and traditional still lifes by John Gould, John James Audubon and George Lambdin, among others, will be shown with Heade’s magnolias and hummingbird and orchid compositions. The conversations among these works demonstrate the artist’s originality and highlight his genius.