Approaching Storm: Beach near Newport
Martin Johnson Heade, American, 1819–1904 American
71.12 x 148.27 cm (28 x 58 3/8 in.)
Medium or Technique
Oil on canvas
Dr. Lawrence H. and Roberta Cohn Gallery (Gallery 235)
Like many of the Hudson River School landscape painters, Martin Johnson Heade was highly attuned to meteorological phenomena. He produced this chilling scene of a thunderstorm at Point Judith, on the south coast of Rhode Island, as part of a series of compositions that depicted ominous weather at sea. Although Thomas Cole and the generation of artists who would follow him were intimately familiar with cloud formations and light effects link, this scene of blackened water and eerily illuminated shoreline suggests a more potent meaning. A thunderstorm accompanying a storm-tossed boat was a common metaphor throughout nineteenth-century European and American painting for an imperiled or wrecked ship of state; the scene here is rendered with deadening calm. The three boats at full sail seem caught in imminent danger and unlikely to find a safe passage to shore. For a nation amidst the upheaval of civil war, the darkened appearance of the stormy sky also brought to mind the familiar black, sulphur-laden canopy that rose above the beleaguered nation’s battlefields.
As the foment of war approached, popular preachers, including Heade’s life-long friend Thomas March Clark, the fifth bishop of Rhode Island, incorporated imagery of biblical deluge into their sermons, equating dark clouds lingering on the horizon with the infamy a civil war would bring. In contrast, sunlight symbolized the hope of God’s redemption. In Heade’s extraordinary scene, the blackened clouds give way to a small patch of blue sky at the upper right, and the roiling waves are juxtaposed with a supernatural glow that suffuses the promontory of Point Judith with an intense clarity.
Of Heade’s half dozen variations on the theme of thunderstorms at the shore, this composition is the most severe and lacking in narrative details. Heade’s viewer is afforded little relief from the cloud cover and the relentless horizontality created by the ocean and the beach. Nature appears at her most terrifying and hostile, and the barrenness of the shore, which drops away from the viewer at the lower edge of the canvas, conveys the sense that there is no foothold on the edge of Heade’s abyss.
This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting link, MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).