'Tag-sale artist' wins museum show

Martin Johnson Heade might just be the ultimate tag-sale artist.

In 1996, two works painted by Heade were bought at an estate sale in Tucson, Ariz., for $60. The buyer sent photos of the paintings to Christie's auction house. They got right back to him. He'd made a nice find: They sold at auction for a total of $1.1 million.

Heade (1819-1904) was a prolific painter and undoubtedly produced thousands of works over his nearly 70-year career. But only a few hundred have been found, many in recent years. His works reached family attics because he was largely dismissed by 19th-century critics, barely mentioned in books on artists of the day.

The most comprehensive look ever at this little-known but fascinating artist, entitled simply "Martin Johnson Heade," opened this week at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) and will subsequently move to the National Gallery in Washington and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Heade, a "middle-class painter" and a bit of a loner, contrasts sharply with his contemporary John Singer Sargent, whose exhibition just closed at the museum with an unprecedented sold-out 33-hour-marathon of viewing on its final weekend.

While Sargent was doing world-class portraiture and filling his easel with images of the rich and famous by the age of 21 or 22, the mostly self-taught Heade didn't really do anything memorable until he was 40, says Theodore Stebbins, chairman of the MFA's Arts of the Americas department and a longtime Heade scholar, who organized the exhibition.

Heade was "more of an original than any painter of his generation," Stebbins says. Heade mastered several genres, including seascapes and still lifes. His series of views of haystacks on a salt marsh explored the play of light 30 years before Monet's haystacks - though Heade's brushwork has nothing of the Impressionist about it.

At a glance, his works are realistic: Sensuous tropical birds and flowers are among his favorite subjects. But, like any true art, they do more than mirror the world - they rearrange it, enhancing or combining elements and making observations.

His seemingly modest scenes of nature, Stebbins notes, came just as writer Henry David Thoreau was finding at Walden "the whole universe in a pond."

The show confirms that the many still-lost works of Heade are well worth the hunt. Maybe you'll find one in an attic somewhere.

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(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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