Martin Johnson Heade

Featured in Aesthetics Lessons
04112012_EDU_Martin J. Head_main.jpg
Martin Johnson Heade, Thunderstorm at the Shore, c. 1870-1871, Howard N. Eavenson Memorial Fund for the Howard N. Eavenson Americana Collection, The Carnegie Museum of Art

Born in Lumberville, Pennsylvania in 1819, Martin Johnson Heade experienced a humble artistic career. Today, however, he is regarded as one of the most talented artists of the second-generation Hudson River School. Heade first worked as a nomadic portrait painter, traveling in the states and abroad. In 1859, he settled in New York and by 1860 had turned to painting landscapes and seascapes, which proved to be an ideal subject matter to explore space and light.

Thunderstorm at the Shore (c. 1870-71) depicts a Rhode Island beach as a severe storm rolls through. The dark sky and sea are painted in high contrast, wedged between the distant sun and foregrounding sand. The black clouds break as the people on the beach pull fishing nets to shore. Painted at a diminutive scale in relation to nature, the people are all but consumed by the environment. Members of the Hudson River School often traveled to extreme locations to paint in order to witness and capture a certain wildness and sublime beauty. These artists venerated America’s scenic beauty alongside writers such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. For the more religious members, the American landscape was a visible demonstration of God’s being. Heade’s later travels took him to South America, British Columbia, California and finally to Florida where he spent his last years. An avid naturalist and keen observer, he painted still-lifes of flowers, swamp scenes, hummingbirds and orchids until his death in 1904.


  • Hudson River School
  • Sublime

Discussion Questions:

  1. What associations and feelings come to mind when you look at this painting?
  2. What choices did the artist make when designing the composition?
  3. Which of the following aesthetic labels: realistic, expressive or spiritual, do you think best describes the value of this painting? Use information you see in the picture and in the text to support your answer.
  4. If this painting was hung in a seaside restaurant (instead of in the historic collection of landscapes at the Carnegie Museum of Art) would its realistic, expressive or spiritual value change? Explain your answer.