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Sunlight and Shadow - The Newbury Marshes

Artist: Martin Johnson Heade

Size: 30.5 x 67.3 cm

Medium: Oil on canvas

The painting in discussion takes the audience towards Newbury and Newburyport, Massachusetts, near the mouth of the Merrimack River. His acquaintances, John Greenleaf Whittier's poetry and Bishops Thomas March of Newburyport would have attracted him to the landscape which he discovered around 1859.

Sunlight and Shadow is a particularly masterful example of how the artist balanced the many forces in his wetland compositions. Three bands make up the painting, a blue sky, pink and grey clouds and the green meadow. An apple tree on the left on the canvas frames the composition, the haystack in the center provides a point of focus and a few animals in the distance in a patch of sunlight create an extra interest. A stream winds from left to the center in the background. It is definitely a beautiful painting, yet If one was to follow the marshland, where would it lead us? The artist depicts "the tides, meteorological phenomena, and other natural forces that shaped the appearance of the swamp and showed how the land was used for hunting, fishing, and the harvesting of naturally occurring salt hay" (quote from National Gallery description).

Sunlight and shadow, the Newbury Marshes encapsulates both major European aesthetic traditions: idyllic, light-filled scenes or intense, northern specificity. And Heade, makes the ordinary seem exotic. The apple tree is full of fruit and the haystack is half in the sun and shade. The vivid colors give the painting a hallucinatory quality, where the solitary hay stack in the center taken on mystical power! The pink clouds are mirrored in the shallow pool of water at the center of the painting, the sunlight and shadow are seen in the intricate cloud shadows and the subtle movement from light to dark across the body of the haystack. It is an exploration of visual elements.

This painting is joined by other masterworks by Martin Johnson Heade at the National Gallery. The collection includes a remarkable example of each of the three distinctive subjects that defined Heade's career, hummingbirds, flowers and marshes.

The artist, Martine Johnston Heade was a prolific American painter, (1819-1904) known for his salt marsh landscapes, seascapes, portraits of tropical birds and still life's. His painting style and subject matter is regarded by art historians as a significant departure from that of his peers, even though it is derived from the romanticism of the time. He first learnt art from his Father Paul Wouwerman, a historical painter at the time.