From: Bruce Sterling []
Sent: Sunday, April 30, 2000 9:23 PM
To: Viridian List
Subject: Viridian Note 00152: Martin Johnson Heade

Key concepts: environmental art, Hudson River School,
nineteenth-century American painting, Greenhouse storms, unheimlich landscapes, Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904)

Attention Conservation Notice: It's art criticism. It's about some long-dead painter.

'Magnolias on a Blue Velvet Cloth'

Entries in the Greenhouse Disaster Symbol contest: This contest expires May 31, 2000.


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Martin Johnson Heade, Viridian Artist
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  1. He's been dead since 1904.

  2. If he belonged to any art movement at all, he was probably an "American Luminist" or one of the "Hudson River School."

  3. Even though Heade was amiably bumming around and barely earning a living in his own lifetime, he's been violently rediscovered by the contemporary art scene, and is almost as hot right now as Norman Rockwell.


1. He didn't seem to have any settled address until he was 64, and he seems to have been to Europe at least three times and traipsed all over the Caribbean and South America.

2. He married at 64, settled down in St Augustine, Florida, and did a lot of his best work in his declining years.

3. While other Hudson River painters were doing corny mountains, gorges and waterfalls, Martin Johnson Heade painted over 100 pictures of drowned swamps. Rhode Island salt marshes were particular favorites. A lot of Heade's landscapes are half-submerged in rising water. His seascapes are, if anything, even more ominous and otherworldly than the swamps are.

4. Thanks to his travels in Brazil and elsewhere, when Heade wasn't doing swamps, he was portraying endangered orchids and hummingbirds from today's very politically correct rainforests.

5. Even though he painted as much "nature" as Audubon, Heade never seems to have shot anything in order to paint it. Mostly he did big, sexy, tropical flowers, with a very nice Viridian line in drippy tropical decay.

6. Since his first teacher was the self-taught Edward Hicks, Martin Heade never got academic painting quite "right." As a result, his painfully meticulous birds and flowers look a hell of a lot like genetically-altered mutants. Heade's skies have tints unknown in conventional canvases, while many of his most peaceful, contemplative landscapes have bushes and crops that were clearly designed by Monsanto.

7. Martin Johnson Heade's most effective and remarkable canvases, in his own day and today, are giant, uncanny storms. I particularly recommend "Approaching Thunder Storm" of 1859. An imperturbable Yankee and his dog sit next to a stained New England bay as black as ink, bathed in an eerie, pellucid, deeply unnatural light, while all Greenhouse hell breaks loose on the horizon.

This work of art is an unheimlich gift from the 19th century that prophesies an "approaching thunderstorm" that still hasn't quite hit us. When it does hit, this guy is gonna be the only nature painter of his time whose brush can tell the truth.

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