Off the Cuff with Brandon Ruud, Abert Family Curator of American Art at the Milwaukee Art Museum

Nov. 21, 2016
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Magnolia Grandiflora - Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

File Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904) under “unjustly forgotten artists.” The American painter wasn’t especially popular during his lifetime, although he is now recognized as one of the most gifted artists of the nineteenth century. But Heade himself is partly to blame for his neglect. He suffered from the arrogance of the highly gifted and painted sensual canvasses that scandalized his Victorian viewers. “Nature and Opulence: The Art of Martin Johnson Heade,” the first major retrospective of Heade’s work in twenty years, is on display at the Milwaukee Art Museum through January 26, 2017. Off the Cuff spoke with MAM’s Brandon Ruud about Heade’s life and work.

Who was Martin Johnson Heade and why haven’t we heard of him before?

Heade was a nineteenth century American painter, one of the most innovative painters of that entire century. He was the only artist of his generation to explore such a variety of different subjects – landscapes, seascapes, marsh scenes, natural history paintings, beautiful still lifes. He was also compositionally and technically innovative in how he depicted these subjects. When he became interested in painting hummingbirds, for instance, he dissected specimens and even visited Brazil to study them in their natural habitat.

However, Heade stood outside the mainstream of American art. On the one hand, if you think about his subjects, they fall in line with what was popular in American art of the era. But they are so different in tone and spirit from his contemporaries that he didn’t have many patrons or the support of the art world generally.

Still, Heade was proud of his outsider status. He threw down the gauntlet. “I am no bootlicker to the rich,” he claimed. That attitude certainly doesn’t endear you to collectors and patrons. It wasn’t until the mid twentieth century that Heade began to be rediscovered.

What was Heade’s reputation during his lifetime and what accounts for posthumous rediscovery?

When critics did write about him, it was with praise. They realized that no other artist was painting such subtle, beautiful landscape paintings that emphasized atmosphere and quality of light. Even with the critical praise, the subtlety of Heade’s work made it a tougher sell with collectors and patrons.

Even though he fostered the persona of a rebel, Heade was well versed with what was going on in the art world. He spent two years in Europe, where he visited museums and got acquainted with the works of the masters. He also had a studio in New York City, which was the heart of the art world even then.

The resurgence of his reputation has to do with collectors reevaluating nineteenth century American art as a whole. By the early twentieth century that whole era had fallen into decline. No one wanted to buy paintings by the Hudson River School. People wanted to buy Modernism. But eventually people became interested again in these artists once again and the innovative quality of Heade’s work began attracting notice.

Heade’s oeuvre consists of landscapes, seascapes, still lifes of flowers, studies of South American hummingbirds – hardly racy stuff by contemporary standards. Why was he such a controversial artist in his day?

Today it’s hard to imagine that any of these images would be considered racy. But many of Heade’s paintings have sexual overtones that did not go unnoticed by a Victorian audience. For instance, many of the works based on his travels through Central and South America are quite literally about the birds and the bees. In many cases the hummingbirds were in mating position. For a nineteenth century audience conversant in natural history this would have been obvious.

There’s a famous quote from a twentieth century critic that compares Heade’s later still lifes of orchids to a reclining odalisque. Despite the fact that he was focusing on the natural aspect of specimens, there was still an erotic overtone to these sensual, lush paintings. In fact, his single flower still lifes from the end of life only had a single patron. Still, the way that he captured the light and the dew on the petals is breathtaking.

Tell me about Heade’s first major retrospective in nearly twenty years.

People can expect to see a cross-section of Heade’s work including some of the most beautiful landscapes and still lifes of the nineteenth century. There are approximately forty works by Heade that have been juxtaposed with paintings by his contemporaries. This contextual setting allows people to see what was so different and exceptional about Heade. The exhibition is also an opportunity to absorb the MFA Boston’s collection of American art. It’s one of the best in the world.

Does Heade’s nineteenth century art still speak to the contemporary viewer?

Absolutely. On one level there is the pure pleasure of Heade’s technical virtuosity. Every rock is rendered with such precision. It’s hard to look away, to not get absorbed in the solitude of the painting. There is even a surreal quality in some of the later still lifes.

In terms of subject matter, Heade is also still relevant. His interest in the environment resonates with the renewed focus on the environment today. Although Heade stood outside mainstream art and politics of his time, he was very familiar with what was going on in the world and some of his paintings have metaphors about the state of America during this time. There’s a great painting in the exhibition of a farm scene. You see a man and young boy walking out to a herd in the background. Storm clouds are brewing overhead. If you look closely you can see that the man and boy are African Americans. Heade painted the work just as nation was entering the Civil War.

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