Heade felt at home where tide and land meet

Many American-artist contemporaries of Martin Johnson Heade (born in 1819 in Bucks County, Pa.) were smitten with the dazzling grandeur and unreachable sublimity of American landscapes. They measured their paintings against mountain peaks, deep canyons, and breathtaking waterfalls. But Heade was a naturalist in love with intimate phenomena such as hummingbirds and flowers, and when he painted a broader landscape, it was often salt marshes. It was an unpretentious subject, perhaps, but to Heade it offered not only pastoral wildness but continual alterations of light and weather as well.

These marshes characterize much of the Eastern Seaboard, and the Newbury marshes in northeastern Massachusetts were a particular favorite of the painter. Heade also painted the ocean, but he seems to have felt most at home where tide and land meet and mingle.

He witnessed and recorded farmers urgently haying when the tides were low. Heade was fascinated by one particular motif - the uniquely formed haystacks on staddles, or large stakes, set in circles in the marsh. These haystacks could be more than 20 feet high and had to withstand tidal invasion for months. The farmers would take the hay by boat when it was needed. Or they would haul it across the winter ice.

The marshes were rich habitats, valued for their productivity, but when Heade was painting them - throughout the second half of the 19th century - they were already being abandoned by young pioneer farmers who were heading West.

For all his observation and skill, there is a naïve quality to these pictures that gives them directness and intensity. Heade probably owed this to early training under Edward Hicks of "Peaceable Kingdom" fame. Heade brought to his own peaceable marshy kingdom striking contrasts of storm and sunshine, deep shadow, and long flat stretches of freshly shorn, brightly illumined grassland.

"Newburyport Marshes: Approaching Storm" belongs to the Chicago-based Terra Foundation for American Art. Since April 2005, it has been on loan to the Art Institute of Chicago and on view in the museum's greatly expanded American art galleries.

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