Art, opulence and a rediscovered artist

Kat Minerath, Contributing writer

Martin Johnson Heade is an American artist who was born in 1819 in rural Pennsylvania. He achieved some critical notoriety during his life, but after his death in 1904 was largely overlooked in the art world.

In the waning years of Heade’s career and the early 20th century, Art Nouveau and the revolutionary compositions of Expressionism and Cubism with their angst and color, abstraction and jagged lines were the rage — a far cry from the subtle views and sensual nature of Heade’s canvases.

But time moves on and art survives, and now Heade’s work is enjoying a critical resurgence, bolstering his reputation in 19th-century American art.

Like others of his generation, Heade developed a style of painting that owed much to European influences, creating works that seem entirely natural but also evocative of dreamy reverie.

The exhibition Nature and Opulence: The Art of Martin Johnson Heade, on view at the Milwaukee Art Museum, is an overview of his career, the first exhibition of its type in almost two decades.

Heade’s paintings are showcased alongside works by his contemporaries, offering a thoughtful view into this overlooked American artist.

The exhibition begins with Heade’s early portraiture, a subject that could be bread-and-butter for artists working in an age when photography was still in its infancy.

Works like “Portrait of a Man,” painted in 1840, follow the conventions of their day. A man is seated stiffly in front of a background of expansive landscape framed by white columns and elegant drapes, an image of formal dignity and not unlike the work of many other artists of the day.

Portraiture was not Heade’s real interest, and he built his career by pursuing nature through images of landscapes, marshlands and still lifes. This is one of the key points that the exhibition seeks to drive home — that Heade’s innovative reputation comes because of the attention he paid to these varied subjects while showing his characteristic sensitivity to color and brushwork.

Heade set up shop in New York City in 1858 and the proximity to the coast inspired paintings like “Approaching Storm, Beach near Newport,” ca. 1861–62. There is a riled sea washing on the shore and boats with billowing white sails, skimming along the deep, dark water under a sky that looks ready to unleash lightening and rain. The light is eerie, like an impending summer storm.

Heade often relegated the slavish replication of details about a place to a secondary status. His images are more generalized in terms of where he paints, and instead their purpose is to evoke a sense of atmosphere.

Martin Johnson Heade
Martin Johnson Heade (American, 1819–1904), “South American River,” 1868. Oil on canvas, 26 x 22 5/8 inches.

This idea contains impulses of predecessors like the British artist J.M.W. Turner, or the later French Impressionists of the 1870s. However, in terms of the technique of painting, Heade is completely different. His work is meticulous and smooth, polished and delicately thoughtful in the way brushstrokes disappear and detail is never lost.

Things get even more interesting as Heade takes on travels to the Caribbean, as well as Central and South America. His images from these far-off places — for many seen as exotic views — also express his eloquent style, with an emphasis on nature and the feeling of an environment.

“South American River,” 1868, is not specific about exactly where it is, but it is somewhere with a lush abundance of foliage and blossoming flowers under a hazy sky and luminous sun peeking through the clouds. A tiny boat drifts down the river in the center of the picture, taking us on vicarious travels in a place far away. This work can be compared with paintings by other artists in the exhibition, like Frederic Edwin Church’s “Cayambe,”painted in 1867. Church’s brushwork is comparatively muscular, with stronger color contrasts and a depiction of a very specific topographical view of a place. In comparison, Heade is an artist who dreams and muses through paint.

Heade compresses his vision in his still lifes, at times painting flowers to their actual size. “Magnolia Grandiflora” (1885/95) is quite a large white bloom with glistening, waxy green leaves. It is laid horizontally on a soft red, velvety cloth. The exhibition notes reveal that, “similar to Heade’s images of orchids and hummingbirds, these paintings held overt sexual connotations, which perhaps led to their critical dismissal during the artist’s lifetime.” The reclining blossom, slightly opened and eternally fresh, may not appear as overtly sexual to contemporary viewers, but the opulence of nature remains well over one hundred years after the painting’s creation.

On exhibit

Nature and Opulence: The Art of Martin Johnson Heade continues through Feb. 26 at the Milwaukee Art Museum, 700 N. Art Museum Drive.

Current exhibitions

There is a lot of art — and a lot of history — in Milwaukee. Here a few current exhibitions that touch on these topics:

50th Anniversary Exhibition

David Barnett Gallery

1024 E. State St.

Exhibition continues through April 15.

Celebrating five decades, the David Barnett Gallery is showing works from local and internationally recognized artists that span multiple centuries, including pieces by Rembrandt, Edgar Degas, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, as well as selections of African and Haitian art.

Celebrating 27 Years in 2017

Gallery 218

The Marshall Building

207 E. Buffalo St., Suite 218

Exhibition continues through Feb. 25.

This long-running artist collective features work in a variety of styles and mediums, including pieces by Judith Hooks, Bernie Newman, Rande Barke, Joanne O’Hare, Harry Wirth, Karen Williams, Michael Karl and Martha Coaty.

Film Noir and Technicolor Characters

Timothy Cobb Fine Arts

The Marshall Building

207 E. Buffalo St., First Floor

Exhibition continues through Feb. 10.

Taking inspiration from film history, artists create sculpture, paintings and prints that bring back the verve, glamour and mystery of old Hollywood. Exhibiting artists include John Balsley, Jeff Darrow, Colleen Kassner, Philip “Philo” Kassner, Michael Kutzer and Michael Thompson.