THE METHODS AND MATERIALS OF MARTIN JOHNSON HEADE
ELIZABETH LETO FULTON
2 HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
It appears that Heade used materials for painting that were widely available. Although he probably apprenticed with Edward Hicks (1780–1849) (Stebbins 2000), there is no evidence that he received any formal or academic training. Instead, he learned as he worked, traveling in America and Europe and incorporating into his repertoire the methods he admired most in other artists' paintings. He was a cautious, calculating, and steady painter, if one can judge from his working methods. Although some drawings and approximately two dozen oil studies exist, Heade seemed generally to develop his compositions on the canvas he was painting rather than using separate oil sketches or compositional drawings. He would start with a schematic, simple drawing of the background such as a horizon or a table edge, sometimes adding more detailed drawings of major elements, painting the forms and then adjusting and precisely balancing the composition by modifying the size and shape of the motifs. Once Heade perfected the desired motif, he would add it to his repertoire, using it repeatedly in other paintings. He used this method of repeated motifs most regularly in his flower paintings of apple blossoms, orchids, and, later in his career, Cherokee roses and magnolias.
English Pre-Raphaelites, whose work Heade had possibly seen in the English Art in America exhibition in Philadelphia, New York, or Boston in 1857–58, as well as American Pre-Raphaelites, whom he met in the 10th Street Studio Building in New York, had an early and notable influence on him (Stebbins 1975, 2000). His early landscapes, from 1858, demonstrate the influence of both English and American Pre-Raphaelites. We note his “use of high-keyed colors, crisp painting, and equal emphasis of foreground and background detail [that] is characteristic of Luminism as well as Ruskinianism” (Ferber and Gerdts 1985, 267). John Ruskin, born in London in 1819, was known for his books on aesthetics. His emphasis on recording nature with factual, even fanatical, precision influenced several generations of English and American artists.
Another influence on Heade was the methods and style of artists in the 10th Street Studio, New York City, where Heade lived and worked for a number of years. In this studio-residence building he was in contact with his neighbors Sanford Gifford (1825–1880), James M. Hart (1828–1901), William Jacob Hays (1830–1875), John Henry Hill (1839–1922), William J. Stillman (1828–1920), John F. Kensett (1816–1872), and Frederic Edwin Church (1826–1900), to name a few (Blaugrund 1997, 133–34).
Few records exist indicating Heade's purchase of artist's materials, so most of the following information is taken from the paintings themselves. The materials with which Heade worked were generally those that were produced by American manufacturers. In addition to materials produced in America, such as the F. P. Pfleger patented stretcher on “Heliodore's Woodstar” and a Pink Orchid (ca. 1875–90, S487),1 he also used materials that were imported into the United States from European manufacturers, such as the British manufacturer Winsor & Newton, and distributed in New York and Boston. Examples of Winsor & Newton materials are found in Flowers in an Ornate Vase (1874, S446, Winsor & Newton board), Flowers in a Frosted Vase (ca. 1874–80, S449, Winsor & Newton board), and Cattleya Orchid and Three Brazilian Hummingbirds (1871, S429, Winsor & Newton mahoghany panel).
With very few exceptions, Heade used prestretched, preprimed canvases on keyable stretchers. Many of the paintings studied were lined, so canvas stamps were not visible. Although Heade's choice of light-colored, preprimed canvases seems almost conventional given what was available, his understanding of the role that the ground played was quite sophisticated. He was able to take full advantage of the bright, reflective quality of the ground material necessary for imbuing his paintings with light. The only known record of Heade's observations on colors mentions verdigris, lemon yellow, cadmium, emerald green, and Italian pink. His palette changed in the late 1850s and early 1860s when many new pigments became available (Wright 1999, 177).