Martin Johnson Heade Biography
Martin Johnson Heade was born and reared in Lumberville, a small rural community near Doylestown, in Buck’s County, Pennsylvania.
Heade was the eldest son in the large family of Joseph Cowell Heed, the owner of a farm and a lumber mill. The youth’s first lessons in art were provided locally by Edward Hicks and probably also by Thomas Hicks, Edward’s cousin, a rudimentary instruction apparently never replaced by more formal training. Nevertheless, Heade’s artistic sophistication increased considerably within a short time, and, around 1840, he took a study trip to England and the Continent, where he spent two years in Rome.
By 1843, Heade was living in New York; Heade then moved to Brooklyn, changed the spelling of his name to Heade, and in 1847 went to Philadelphia. In 1848, a second trip to Rome and perhaps a visit to Paris established his long-standing pattern of extensive, almost constant travel to distant places. His peripatetic nature prevented his establishing himself early in any American city. After returning from Rome, Heade lived for about a year in Saint Louis, but between 1852 and 1857 he moved at least three other times, to Chicago, Trenton, and Providence.
A turning point in Heade’s artistic career came after he returned to New York in 1859 and rented quarters in the Tenth Street Studio Building. Proximity to so many landscape painters, especially Frederic Church, seems to have inspired him, for it signaled the beginning of his development of a personal style and sparked his lasting interest in the landscape’s broad panorama and subtle atmospheric effects. Even though New York left an enduring mark on Heade’s landscape painting and is the city to which Heade was most closely bound, Heade seems not to have put down deep roots even there:Heade never, for example, joined the National Academy of Design, not even as an Associate.
In the years from 1861 to 1863, which Heade spent in Boston, he interpreted the chaste coastal landscape in a manner uniquely his own. In the latter half of 1863, Heade took a trip to Brazil and stayed on through March 1864. His purpose in going there was to illustrate a complete series of South American hummingbirds, which he hoped to have published in Britain. Though Heade failed in that endeavor, hummingbirds in tropical settings continued as a staple subject in his painting. Heade set out again for South America in 1866; four years later, he made a third trip.
Views of New England and New Jersey, along with floral still lifes and recurring scenes of the tropics, dominated Heade paintings from the early 186os to the early 188os, those years when Heade produced the landscape paintings for which he is most remembered today. Though their effect was often described as disquieting, with them Heade developed one of the best instincts in the Hudson River School for capturing nature’s remote, fleeting beauty.
Heade exhibited widely - at the National Academy of Design, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the American Art-Union, the Boston Athenaeum, and the Royal Academy in London - but achieved at best only moderate recognition. Little written documentation exists about Martin Johnson Heade, and he left no identifiable body of writing.
In 1883, Heade married and moved to Saint Augustine, Florida, where he continued to paint landscape paintings and paintings of flowers. In New York, Martin Johnson Heade was virtually forgotten. Martin Johnson Heade paintings, which were rediscovered during the revival of interest in Hudson River School painting in the 1940s, have been increasingly appreciated in the intervening years and are today accorded major status.