“Martin Johnson Heade”

At the National Gallery of Art to May 7

“Wade Hoefer”

At Hemphill Fine Arts to Feb. 23

For artists, winning popular acclaim is a Darwinian struggle. Often it’s the prettiest and best dressed—Cecily Brown, Brice Marden—who get earmarked for copious face time, as if appearing in a Vanity Fair profile were tantamount to passing on their genetic code. Some less dapper but more serious artists—Thomas Nozkowski and Jonathan Lasker among them—haven’t yet won the attentions of Conde Nast editors. Only time will decide if we’ve mistaken notoriety for significance.

In his day, landscape artist Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904) didn’t win any popularity contests. Heade worked on the fringes of the Hudson River School, which produced artists such as Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, and Frederic Edwin Church, whose reverential landscapes stayed at the top of painting’s pop charts for years on end. If VF had existed back then, you can bet that some tastemaker like Ingrid Sischy would have written them a love letter. But while Church painted 10-foot-wide hymns to the Republic, Heade turned out decidedly more obdurate scenes like Thunder Storm on Narragansett Bay (1868), an airless gem that is credited with igniting critics’ posthumous re-examination of his work. The canvas sidled its way into the Museum of Modern Art’s 1943 “Romantic Painting in America” show, where it drew crowds with its curiously impassive rendering of dramatic subject matter: Even as the fierce storm approaches, there are no signs of panic—sailors trudge along a jetty as if it were any other Monday; sailboats return to shore in a languid fashion. Heade’s distaste for melodrama—as well as his penchant for painting still lifes and flat-land marshscapes—made him only modestly successful next to his lionized contemporaries.

The National Gallery of Art’s 74-piece Heade retrospective, organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, devotes five hallowed West Wing galleries to this longtime Rodney Dangerfield of 19th-century landscape painting, aiming to give him some respect. The son of a farmer, Heade left his home in Bucks County, Pa., where he had painted portraits under the tutelage of folk artist Edward Hicks, at age 24. He traveled around the United States and Europe for almost 15 years before taking a space in Greenwich Village’s Tenth Street Studio Building in 1858. That building was ground zero for the Hudson River painters—Church and Sanford Gifford had studios in the building; Asher Durand worked nearby. Those painters were turning out canvases that served as feel-good allegories of the national psyche—during times of peace and prosperity, outsized landscapes celebrating the power of the American yeomanry; during the Civil War, seascapes tossing the ship of state on angry seas.

Heade didn’t go in for such maudlin parables, although he did have a touch of the drama queen about him. His interest in dramatic light effects places him squarely in the Luminist branch of 19th-century landscapists. The line between earthly hell and luminous heaven runs stark in the spectacular Seascape: Sunset (1861). A charcoal sea meets searing layers of rosy orange sky that diffuse up from the horizon to touch the underbellies of passing stratus clouds. If the gallery’s electricity had gone out, I reckon the canvas could have illuminated my notebook.

But Heade, unlike many of his Hudson River colleagues, also chose to trip the light fantastic with partners other than earth and water. Beginning in 1863, Heade headed down to Brazil every now and again to paint birds and flowers. The resulting juxtapositions of hummingbirds and blossoms in misty jungle backgrounds deploy light with the same sensitivity and drama of his seascapes. The royal-purple pigment on the breast of the Black-Breasted Plovercrest (1864-1865) glistens with the same intense light that fills Seascape: Sunset. Although Heade claimed to be interested in the taxonomic aspects of hummingbird study, and even planned to use his Brazilian work as the basis of a book on his feathered friends, these paintings aren’t anything like Audubon prints. Stylized but devoid of awkwardness, they represent a romantic’s view of nature.

By the time Heade died, at age 85, he’d painted for almost 65 years, churning out 15 to 25 works annually. To support this prodigious production schedule, Heade recycled his subject matter and compositions, and this show offers plenty of deja vu. On one wall hangs a suite of three nearly identical renditions of the same spray of apple blossom in various settings—against a cloudy sky (1867), against a plain brown background (1870), and with a hummingbird (1871). The effect is like that of looking at Florida vacation photos of a shy kid flashing the same manufactured smile as his parents make him pose again and again—on the tram at Epcot, in front of the Hilton, at the Orlando airport.

In the case of Heade’s fetish for salt marshes, which he rendered more than 120 times during his career, the artist’s obsession is infectious. The 10 canvases on view here show flat shore-lands studded with acorn-shaped haystacks, rangy salt grasses, and meandering rivers. Although the landscapes are peopled with tiny farmers or fishermen or cows, light is their real subject: the darkening pre-storm mantle of Salt Marsh Hay (c. 1866-1876); the dense morning haze of Sunrise on the Marshes (1863); the bipolar moodiness of Summer Showers (1862-1870), with its gray thunderhead in the foreground and pale-blue sky full of innocent cumulus in the distance. Never has meteorology been so fascinating.

Compared with Heade’s mercurial canvases, Wade Hoefer’s landscapes look stoned. In his show currently on view at Hemphill Fine Arts, the 51-year-old Northern Californian presents large, dreamy landscapes that anchor the two-room gallery’s soaring spaces. The images are rendered so hazily that he might have been looking through cheesecloth when he painted them. The environments themselves are benign and personality-free: There is no trace of people or place; there is no weather; there are no extremes. Streams meander; Tuscan-looking pines stand quietly; the land is neither flat nor mountainous. Looking at these canvases has the same soporific impact as sitting in a rocking chair.

Perhaps Hoefer is so worried about seeming too rapt that he’s taken a step of ironic remove. He keeps his arcadias at a distance by framing the scenes within wide borders, a device he’s used, in one form or another, for some time—his past efforts include faded faux-Latin script running along the edges of his canvas and massive concrete frames around his images. Here, he revisits another approach he’s adopted before—borders filled with floral patterns or with magnified, monochromatic silhouettes of the scene he’s painted. The edges of Textum I and Textum III are made of flower-printed French toile coated with curry-yellow paint to fade the fabric’s color, with a few additional splotches of yellow paint mimicking water stains. With these “walls,” Hoefer situates us—all too coyly—in some dilapidated old manse, as if we were bemoaning our fading ancestral fortunes while looking out onto the estate.

But the same framing technique feels fresher when Hoefer fills his borders with magnified and abstracted versions of the central landscapes. In Arum I (Brattea), the shadowy surround of a crimson landscape echoing the central image rings as self-conscious as the faded-flower “wallpaper,” but here the layering of images adds a shake of irony without being too cute. And, as if his paintings’ borders weren’t enough, Hoefer exposes swatches of white canvas where the fabric stretches around its support, reminding us that his paintings are just objects, not real windows to the landscape.

Despite such winks at postmodernism, the 16 paintings and six sepia-toned photographs on view are meant to look old. Extra coats of varnish evoke Old Master gloss. And Hoefer’s dreamy views of nature take cues from the mid-19th-century Barbizon School painters, who wished away the Industrial Revolution with their pious depictions of the unsullied landscape. Hoefer appears to be nostalgic not for a specific place or time, but for a relaxed state of mind that’s been banished from modern lives. His canvases are polite and well-mannered, with a touch of the Old World about them. Like well-dressed Brown grads from good families, they’d be great for showing off at dinner parties. CP