Harvard curator gives speech on Heade painting in Benton Museum

Dr. Theodore E. Stebbins, retired curator of the Harvard Art Museums, gave a talk on how the 18th Century American painter, Martin Johnson Heade, surpassed the history of "stuffy" American painting, at the Benton on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016. Heade's painting continue to surface in garage sales every few months. (Bill Heyne/The Daily Campus)

Harvard American Art curator and emeritus professor Dr. Theodore E. Stebbins gave a lecture on American painter Martin Johnson Heade at the Benton Museum of Art on Thursday night. Stebbins was the speaker of this year’s Annual Gene and Georgia Mittelman Lecture in the Arts.

The goal of the Mittelman lectures is to invite speakers to talk about pieces that are a part of the Benton’s permanent collection, Benton Executive Director Nancy Stula said.

The centerpiece of Stebbin’s lecture was “Rye Beach”, an oil painting completed in 1863. Stebbins said Heade was recognized as a painter of light. Unlike his contemporaries, who painted still and magnificent nature scenes, Heade painted changing atmospheres, marching storms and the sea, Stebbins said.

Stebbins said Heade’s paintings were influenced by a cultural shift that occurred after the Civil War. “[The] sense of idealism, high democracy, and the belief that we will only know prosperity was gone,” Stebbins said. “Too many were dead.”

Stebbins said that optimism was no longer relevant. In its place, corruption, agony from racism, struggle, and the prosperity of the few became relevant, Stebbins said.

“Heade painted the American mind, not the scenery,” Stebbins said.

Stebbins said that Heade painted mystery, where nature is at the forefront and man’s role in it is unknown. Heade initially focused on portraits, which Stebbins said were not good. Heade’s luck began to improve in 1858, when he arrived in New York City, Stebbins said. Heade would run errands for renowned American landscape painter Frederic Edwin Church, Stebbins said. Heade would watch over Church’s studio, who at the time was finishing “The Heart of the Andes”, one of his most famous paintings, Stebbins said.

“Heade must have watched over Church’s shoulder for hours at a time,” Stebbins said. Stebbins said Church did not become Heade’s mentor, but Church did inspire Heade. Church’s painting of majestic scenery and travel to exotic places motivated Heade to visit Brazil during the 18060s, Stebbins said.

It was in Brazil that Heade learned that he was not good at painting magisterial views like Church was, Stebbins said. Heade did learn that he was good at painting smaller subjects, Stebbins said. Stebbins described Heade’s paintings of birds and butterflies at the time were high in realism and had extraordinary light, as if Heade had taken a snapshot of the subjects during their normal lives.

Heade was eventually sponsored by the Emperor of Brazil to create a collection of bird paintings, Stebbins said.

After his time in Brazil, Heade returned to New York City, Stebbins said. Unfortunately, Head did not have any luck at becoming successful while living in the city. Stebbins said that back then, an artist needed to be a part of a school or gallery in order to get popular. But Heade was a loner and crank, Stebbins said. Stebbins said that Heade never became a member of a school or gallery because he wanted things his way. Stebbins said that because of this, Heade did not become popular in New York City.

Heade moved to St. Augustine, Florida in 1885, where he became the lead painter of the St. Augustine Hotel for 21 years until his death, Stebbins said.

“Heade’s work was never recognized because it was so different,” Stebbins said.

Stebbins said that the mainstream landscape painters at the time, the Hudson River School painters, depicted nature as unchanging, under man’s control. Heade, however, painted nature as an ever-changing force without a specific role for man, Stebbins said. “Heade painted a world were man was no longer in the center, but was in the peripheral, an observer,” Stebbins said.

Stebbins said that when Heade was alive, one of his paintings would typically go for $200. In Contrast, Stebbins said that Church’s paintings would go for $10,000 at the time. The most a Heade painting has gone for today was $6M, Stebbins said. The Benton acquired “Rye Beach” for $3,150 decades ago thanks to the endowment of the Louise Crombie Beach Memorial Foundation, Stebbins said.

Charles Lewis Beach, who was once the President of the UConn Agricultural College, founded the foundation, Stebbins said. Ironically, Beach did not like the painting, Stebbins said. “He hated it and most of the paintings because he had the tastes of the time,” Stebbins said.

Stebbins said that the purchase of the Heade painting was a farsighted purchase because taste is changing all the time. “Tastes constantly changes. The sure things today are not going to be admired tomorrow,”Stebbins said.


Dario Cabrera is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at dario.cabrera@uconn.edu.