December 04, 2003

Heade's hay.

Heade’s hay.

Haystack with pointed top, 1868 drawingOf the hundreds of artists who have represented hay in their work, the one who has depicted hay most often is the nineteenth century American Luminist painter, Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904 ). Our virtual collection now includes about 120 (roughly twice as many as those produced by the second most prolific hay painter, Camille Pissarro).
Newburyport marshes: passing storm
Most of these 120 can be reductively summarized to variations on the same motif cluster: several haystacks, usually one large and others diminishing in size to draw the eye into and across the landscape; a sinuous tidal waterway serving both as another perspectival device and a mirror to amplify the presence of the stacks; flat marshland, sometimes framed by willows or low fluvial terraces; sunlight and sky in the process of imminent rapid change, either at dusk or under the influence of passing storms or the filtering of transient fogs; and a barely conspicuous human presence, wagons being loaded, ruined wagons or staddles collapsing into the marsh, and tiny workers or hunters or fishermen, investing the omnipresent stacks with even more monumentality.

Marsh at dawn
Marsh at dawn
Newbury hayfield at sunset
Newbury hayfield at sunset

Ipswich Marshes on Stebbins' title pageHeade’s hay works were long neglected in comparison to the more grandiose landscapes of the Hudson River school and others of his contemporaries. But in recent years they have been increasingly appreciated and thoroughly documented, most notably in the magisterial biographies and catalogues of Theodore J. Stebbins. Stebbins identified, described and reproduced well over 100 hay images in his Life and Work of Martin Johnson Heade: A Critical Analysis and Catalogue Raisonnee (Yale University Press, 2000). Significantly, Stebbins and his publishers give pride of place to the hay images by assigning to the title page a reproduction of "Ipswich Marshes" (our ID 216, see at right and below), almost as large as the original. Immediately below are two Heade hay paintings which escaped Stebbins and subsequently emerged from obscurity into the sales galleries. Two other newly emerged Heade hay paintings are shown at the end of this essay.

Marsh sunset
Marsh sunset
Marsh scene with cattle and a bridge
Marsh scene with cattle and a bridge


Turning the pages of Stebbins' monograph is more mesmerizing than monotonous, his images more comparable to a collection of the still-lifes of Morandi than the meules of Monet. All the Heade hay compositions are similar but none are identical. Their consistently panoramic shape, twice as wide as high, makes the most of their modest size. Seen together or in quick succession, they seem like frames in a documentary movie in a wide-screen format.

View at Southport, Connecticut
View at Southport, Connecticut
Sunrise on the Marshes
Sunrise on the Marshes
Duck hunters in a twilight marsh
Duck hunters in a twilight marsh
Marshes at Rhode Island
Marshes at Rhode Island
Newburyport marshes
Newburyport marshes
Summer showers
Summer showers
Newburyport marshes: approaching storm
Newburyport marshes: approaching storm
Newburyport marshes: passing storm
Newburyport marshes: passing storm
Sudden shower, Newbury marshes
Sudden shower, Newbury marshes
Marshfield meadows, Massachusetts
Marshfield meadows, Massachusetts
Salt marsh hay
Salt marsh hay
Salt Marshes, Newburyport, Massachusetts
Salt Marshes, Newburyport, Massachusetts
Winding river, sunset
Winding river, sunset
Ipswich marshes
Ipswich marshes
The great swamp
The great swamp
Marsh scene: two cattle in a field
Marsh scene: two cattle in a field
Storm over the marshes
Storm over the marshes
Newburyport meadows
Newburyport meadows
Hayfields: a clear day
Hayfields: a clear day
Marsh scene, sunset --sketch
Marsh scene, sunset --sketch
Marsh with a hunter
Marsh with a hunter
Sunset on the Rowley marshes
Sunset on the Rowley marshes
Jersey meadows with ruins of a haycart
Jersey meadows with ruins of a haycart
Sunset, haywagon in distance
Sunset, haywagon in distance
Marshfield meadows, Massachusetts
Marshfield meadows, Massachusetts
Jersey meadows, with distant hills
Jersey meadows, with distant hills


The year 2000 was notable not only for the publication of Stebbins' catalogue raisonne, but also for the excellent travelling retrospective exhibit of Heade's paintings, well received in Boston, Washington and Los Angeles, but ambivalently reviewed by Sanford Schwartz (New York Review of Books, February, 2000, pp.10-12. Schwartz “surrounded in one room at [Heade’s 1999 retrospective], by a dozen marsh paintings [felt] confined with an artist who was less an explorer of his theme than a victim of the need to keep redoing it.” (p.10).


Gremlin in the studio, IITwo of Heade's paintings indicate that he was actually amused by his preoccupation. Each shows a little happy face on a stick body peeking from under a crude studio trestle on which a marsh hay painting stands. Neither seems to depict precisely another Heade hay painting, but both resemble in their elements, oh, about a hundred other Heade works. Even the relative dimensions of the pictures in the picture conform to the other horizontal marsh paintings, but the anecdotal gremlin mischievously draining the marsh water onto the studio floor adds another few inches to the bottom. One of them "Gremlin in the Studio II," was reproduced on page 127 of the recent Hudson River School catalog (published by Yale UP in association with the Wadsworth Atheneum which owns the painting). The excellent commentary notes: 'By virtue of their subject, Heade's marsh paintings already depart from any picturesque ideal, and the impish gremlin...further heightens the viewer's awareness of the paintings as a representative object, an image of nature that should not be confused with nature itself.' (p.126)

We assume that few people, confronted by more than a few marsh haystack paintings, experienced the claustrophobia about which Sanford Schwartz complained. Most viewers would be exhilarated by the chance to see them together to compare their subtly shuffled elements and the play of light across the familiar stage. And so this essay, illustrated by over thirty Heade hay images, and our systematic database which lists them all, bring as many as possible into the same virtual museum. We trust that visitors to this hay world will share our appreciation of Heade’s genius in representing the spaces and places of salt marsh hay. They are at once timeless and ephemeral in the context of tidal and diurnal rhythms, in their fleeting conditions of light and weather, and in their monumental artifacts which, transformed by changes in agricultural technology and largely displaced by East Coast urbanization, endure now only in a few preciously preserved coastal inlets, in Heade's paintings and in the work of a few other late nineteenth century artists.

Heade's contemporaries, confronted by the same landscape, either subordinated the haystacks to the craft that plied the tidal rivers --

George Loring Brown. Medford marshes
George Loring Brown. Medford marshes
Frank Thurlo. Plum Island River
Frank Thurlo. Plum Island River

or were awkwardly imitative and not nearly so accomplished as Heade himself.

Samuel Gerry. Gathering salt marsh hay
Samuel Gerry. Gathering salt marsh hay
William Bowlen. Sloop on a marsh creek
William Bowlen. Sloop on a marsh creek

Stebbins (p. 168-169) provides a detailed comparison between this chalk drawing by the Newburyport artist Bowlen and the more famous paintings by Martin Johnson Heade of the same marsh haystacks. This and other drawings once attributed to Heade 'make use of a one-point system of perspective, in which the haystacks and the banks of the river recede to a single vanishing point on the horizon' in contrast to Heade's more subtly dynamic suggestion of depth, which encourages the eye to move both into and across the picture.

untitled: sloop at sunsetHeade's current importance in the history of American art is reflected by the $1,006,250 sale (on December 7, 2003) of an inferior marsh painting in poor condition, and by the Heade 37 cent stamp to be issued in 2004 by the US Postal Service. Alas, the image will be of magnolias not marsh hay.


Marsh sunset.Another Heade from a private collection comes to auction in October, 2004. Given the recent sale price and significantly inferior condition of the "sloop at sunset" painting, the suggested price of this work ($400,000 to $600,000) seems low. But since I would have to sell my house to buy it, I must resist the temptation.

Posted by Alan Ritch at December 4, 2003 04:45 PM