The Bruce Museum has announced an anonymous promised gift to its collection of an exquisitely executed picture, “Sunlight on Newbury Marshes,” circa 1865‷5, by the Nineteenth Century American luminist painter Martin Johnson Heade (1819‱904).
The painting represents a work from the artist’s mature period. Heade trained with his neighbor and fellow Pennsylvanian folk artist, Edward Hicks of “Peaceable Kingdom” fame. The peripatetic Heade worked throughout the United States, South America and Europe. He painted alongside such artists as John F. Kensett and Benjamin Chamney, whom he met in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and he became close friends with Frederic Edwin Church when both men worked in the new Tenth Street Studio Building in Manhattan.
Heade was successful in his time, exhibiting at numerous academies and selling enough paintings to support himself, but his role as a significant figure in Nineteenth Century American landscape painting was not fully appreciated until the second half of the Twentieth Century.
Beginning with his move in 1858 to New York, Heade began to concentrate on landscapes and still lifes. Although generally considered a member of the Hudson River School, and particularly its final phase of “luminism,” Heade’s style and favored themes sometimes defy that categorization. Whereas many Hudson River School painters arranged their compositions according to established traditions in landscape painting, Heade often ignored such conventions. Such painters as Church and Kensett frequently sketched outdoors to capture minute details of topography specific to particular regions. Heade did this too, but upon capturing a motif to his satisfaction, such as a haystack, he would use it repeatedly in new ways.
Similarly, he focused less on the grandiose views of nature popular with Hudson River School artists, preferring instead the more humble marshes of Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York. “Sunlight on Newbury Marshes” is an excellent example of Heade’s interest in this subject. He was unusual in depicting the marshes at that time, and his approximately 120 known marshland paintings constitute about half of the landscapes he produced after 1858.
He painted the marshes at different times of day and in various weather conditions. Offering vistas of untamed nature, the marshes also bore evidence of human labor, evident in the presence of haystacks and in the activities of farmers, who frequently appear in the background of Heade’s paintings. Another element of the marshland that fascinated Heade was their perpetual mutability †changing from land to water and back again with the tidal flow.
This painting depicts the marshland in Newbury, a small town in northeastern Massachusetts. Heade’s attention to detail and tight, polished brushwork lend particular intensity to the rolling clouds overhead and the glittering water in the foreground. Several haystacks lead the viewer’s eye into the distance, past the farmers, to a low horizon, recalling Dutch panoramic landscapes.
The Bruce Museum’s executive director, Peter C. Sutton, observed, “We are absolutely delighted by this promised gift, which is the finest Nineteenth Century American landscape that the museum has ever received. It also advances our campaign to gather 100 outstanding gifts of works of art to the museum in its centennial year. We will be forever indebted to the donor.”
“Sunlight on Newbury Marshes,” with its tranquil evocation of Nineteenth Century New England countryside, will create interesting dialogues with the museum’s work by other luminist painters, such as Francis Silva, and will further augment the museum’s collection of Nineteenth Century paintings.
The Bruce Museum is at 1 Museum Drive. For information, www.brucemuseum.org or 203-869-0376.