New Acquisition: Martin Johnson Heade’s Newburyport Marsh (Marsh Haystacks)
During the third quarter of the nineteenth century, a handful of unaffiliated artists working mainly in the northeastern United States—among them Fitz Henry Lane (1804–1865), John Frederick Kensett (1816–1872), Martin Johnson Heade (1819–1904), and Sanford Robinson Gifford (1823–1880)—produced some of the most quietly captivating landscapes in American art. Later cohered by the neologism luminists, these artists were, as the term suggests, especially concerned with the effects of light and shared a predilection for muted, sparsely and asymmetrically composed canvases with barely perceptible brushwork. First articulated by the curator John Baur in 1954, luminism was explained theoretically as the embodiment of transcendental philosophy—particularly that of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882)—and its imperative to integrate spirit and matter. Luminist artists approached this communion by instilling a precise and meditative focus in the hushed, lucent, typically horizontal paintings they created. Although debates about the validity of the term and the movement it describes have animated American art history for years, the pervasive stillness and metaphysical allure of works by these artists, delivered through affecting yet quotidian compositions, suggest some sort of kinship, even if only conceptual.
However characterized, Fitz Henry Lane and Martin Johnson Heade are prime exemplars of this aesthetic. In 2015 the Museum acquired a late masterpiece by Lane, Ships in Fog, Gloucester Harbor (ca. 1860), which is now joined by Heade’s equally compelling Newburyport Marsh (Marsh Haystacks) (ca. 1871–75), completed about a decade later and also depicting the Massachusetts shore north of Boston. Heade is credited with discovering the salt marsh as subject, and this work belongs to a series of haystack scenes that portray the artist’s favorite marshes in the adjoining towns of Newbury and Newburyport, between Gloucester and the Merrimack River estuary. The quietly evocative composition and nuanced coloration make Newburyport Marsh (Marsh Haystacks) a superlative example of the artist’s approach to capturing the slower, more muted cadences of nature, rhythms characterized by interconnection, flux, and flow.
Its exaggerated horizontality, low horizon line, meandering river leading into the composition, and haystacks dotting the horizon like chess pieces on a board are hallmarks of Heade’s most arresting marsh pictures. In Newburyport Marsh, a small patch of blue breaks through clouds, creating dramatic splashes of light across the shadowy landscape. While such a detail would suggest careful observation of a precise location and time, most of the artist’s marsh paintings are not site-specific. Heade believed the marsh held universal meaning and was primarily interested in conveying the essence and overarching characteristics of marsh life, thereby suggesting enduring qualities of nature more broadly, despite the encroachments of settlement and modernity. Portraying a liminal world at once wild and cultivated, aqueous and terrestrial, timeless and temporal, Heade’s littoral scenes constitute a departure from the grandeur of untouched nature favored by earlier Hudson River School painters, introducing new complexity to the American visual representation of nature. Although the Massachusetts marshes were widely disregarded at the time as places without beauty or aesthetic interest, Heade was not alone in his admiration of them. Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) wrote appreciatively of the wetlands in nearby Concord, noting, “nothing was wanting to make a paradise of that meadow.” He seems, like Heade, to have identified with the liminality and contingency of marshland, stating that, given the choice between a beautiful garden or a dismal swamp, “I should certainly decide for the swamp. . . . I feel that with regard to Nature I live a sort of border life.”1
Newburyport Marsh (Marsh Haystacks) was painted at the height of Heade’s preoccupation with the subject. The composition’s central stream was likely inspired by Pine Island Creek, one of many such waterways in the area’s marshland. In gaining the slightly elevated perspective useful to survey the surrounding flatland, Heade likely took advantage of Pine Island, a small promontory still evident today. Whatever the particular derivation of a given composition, the marsh’s mundane appearance led paradoxically to Heade’s best work, and within his many depictions of them, it is the muted, pregnant atmosphere of paintings such as Newburyport Marsh that most effectively distills the evocative appeal of this remarkable extended series. In his focus on the common marshes, the artist anticipates one of the central lessons of modern conservation ecology: that it is not only the sublime spaces of the natural world (a judgment in any case rendered solely from a human perspective) that merit attention and appreciation—thereby leaving the rest of nature to take care of itself. On the contrary, Heade’s painting portrays, with utmost sympathy, a modest, ordinary scene. What makes it extraordinary is the artist’s unsurpassed ability to impart an abiding resonance to such a place and moment in time.
John Wilmerding Curator of American Art
1 Henry David Thoreau, “Walking,” Atlantic Monthly, May 1, 1862.