Martin Johnson Heade’s ‘Thunder Storm on Narragansett Bay.’

Martin Johnson Heade’s ‘Thunder Storm on Narragansett Bay.’ – 1868; Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas

Sarah Cash

In 1868 Martin Johnson Heade completed his acknowledged masterpiece, Thunder Storm on Narragansett Bay (Pl. I), the culmination of the thunderstorm theme he had been exploring for nine years. He probably began the painting in the summer of 1867, and he had finished it by February 1868, when he bought its frame from Seth M. Vose, his dealer in Providence, Rhode Island.(1) No preparatory studies for the painting and virtually no documentation of its history have come to light since its rediscovery in 1943.

The painting was first shown publicly in March 1868 at the spring exhibition of the Brooklyn Art Association in Brooklyn, New York. A month later it was part of the popular annual exhibition at the National Academy of Design in New York City. Although there was little critical comment,(2) the painting was sold to an unidentified collector while it was at the National Academy.(3)

Twentieth-century writers have often noted the remarkable formal qualities of Thunder Storm on Narragansett Bay. Indeed, at the time of its rediscovery it was the eerie intensity of the painting that especially appealed to a public familiar with surrealism. Although much has been written about the painting, and it has been frequently exhibited since 1943, only two scholars have speculated on the meaning the painting held for Heade and his audience,(4) and none have explored his creative process.

A small traveling exhibition entitled Ominous Hush: The Thunderstorm Paintings of Martin Johnson Heade, now at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, explores the relationship of the painting in Plate I to seven other thunderstorm views painted by Heade between 1859 and 1868. Most of them depict Narragansett Bay (see Fig. 6), not far from Providence, Rhode Island, the city in which Heade lived from 1857 to early 1859, and again in 1860, 1861, and 1866. An examination of the preliminary studies for the known major thunderstorm paintings confirms that Heade developed the finished pictures in the traditional manner of the Hudson River school. He made on-site pencil sketches during the summer and on at least one occasion worked out the composition as a small oil in the studio (Pl. III). He combined elements from these studies to suit his needs so that the final canvases are often composites rather than topographical views.


Heade’s Approaching Thunder Storm of 1859(5) (Pl. IV) depicts a specific site, “[Rocky](6) Point from Prudence Is.,” as noted on the sketch shown in Figure 3, one of two preliminary sketches for the painting (see also Fig. 5). A photograph (Fig. 4) verifies that the view is north from Prudence Island, in the middle of Narragansett Bay, to a section of Warwick called Rocky Point. Heade probably made the two studies during the summer of 1858, sketching from Sheep Pen Cove at the jagged northern end of the island, where the shore line is marked by two spits (visible at the right in the painting).(7) On the less detailed sketch (Fig. 5) Heade made notes about the weather, color, and light. The sketch in Figure 3, surely the later of the two, is more finished and topographically detailed and shows the entire composition of the painting, albeit from a more distant vantage point. In the second sketch and the painting, Heade has altered the perspective, compressing the land masses and separating the fingers of land by water. Both sketches show more topographical features on the distant slope of Rocky Point than can be seen from the cove today. Heade may have enhanced what he saw, but it is also possible that the topography has changed. Some features of the second sketch were not retained in the finished painting: several rocks, two figures wearing hats, and two sailboats–one in the distance and one docked at a pier, where a man accompanies a horse-drawn cart near a large building.


In 1867 Heade took a similar approach when he painted Point Judith, R.I.,(8) a site he had represented twice before.(9) In its final form, the 1867 painting is known today only through the engraving shown in Figure 1. A preparatory drawing (Fig. 2), probably made in the summer of 1866 when Heade was again living in Providence, only summarily outlines the land masses shown in the engraving, but both capture the distinctive profile of the promontory with its raised tip and central saddle. Both also show Point Judith Lighthouse (built in 1857) at the tip and a number of farmhouses along the point. In his studio Heade painted the small oil study shown in Plate III that is based in part on the pencil drawing, apparently in preparation for the unlocated painting. As indicated by the engraving, the final canvas retains the stormy sky of the oil study as well as several elements from the pencil drawing that are not present in the oil sketch: the rocks in the foreground, distant ships, the stick protruding from the shallows at the left of center, and the lighthouse and houses on Point Judith. Finally, Heade added a few details not found in either of the preliminary works, such as the fragment of a wreck at the lower right and a stick protruding from the sand in the extreme left foreground.


It seems likely that Thunder Storm on Narragansett Bay, like the 1859 and 1867 works, documents a specific place. Since the far shore appears quite close, the site is probably near the northern end of the bay, where it meets the Providence River (see Fig. 6). As the light source appears to be behind the viewer,(10) the vista is probably to the east and may show in the distance the village of Riverside, south of East Providence.

Several factors suggest that Heade made at least one pencil sketch and perhaps even a preliminary oil for the painting, although none have been located. A significant amount of underdrawing, certain innovative techniques, and several reworked passages indicate the artist’s intense and prolonged concentration on perfecting the composition and atmospheric effects. He used two types of underdrawing with the brush: one to block in the upper and lower out-line of the distant land mass and the other to block in the shape of the figure with an oar on his shoulder and the shape and reflection of the sail being lowered. The underdrawing is still visible around the figure and to the left of the sail’s reflection (see Pl. II). Heade created the illusion of thunderclouds with a sophisticated scumbling technique. His innovative use of glazes is evident in the translucent brown glaze that covers the sky at the right and in the almost imperceptibly thin hot orange and yellow glazes that saturate the foreground in the warm ocher glow from the clouds. There are also orange glazes in the water in the left foreground and yellow glazes along the shore. Heade moved the sea grass, rocks, and driftwood from the lower right to the lower left, leaving the most significant of the pentimenti: the texture of individual blades of grass visible through the final layers of paint that make up the sandy beach at the lower right corner.

Thunder Storm on Narragansett Bay was not only Heade’s most intense and comprehensive treatment of the thunderstorm theme, but also his last known major depiction of it. While the only contemporary critic to comment extensively on Approaching Thunder Storm (Pl. IV) noted merely its evocation of an “ominous hush” and a “dread feeling,”(11) the thunderstorm subject that so occupied Heade undoubtedly had great meaning for Americans during the Civil War and Reconstruction years. Nineteenth-century Americans felt that the natural world and representations of it were both instructive and symbolic. The popular Congregational preacher Henry Ward Beecher (1813–1887), for example, articulated this view when he urged his audience to consider art a “pictorial language” of the age.(12) Furthermore, the thunderstorm frequently appeared as a metaphor in political oratory, popular literature, and religious rhetoric (including Beecher’s). Significantly, Storm Clouds on the Coast (Pl. V) was almost certainly first owned by Beecher, and Approaching Thunder Storm was acquired by Heade’s friend Noah Hunt Schenck (1825–1885), an Episcopalian minister who, like Beecher, frequently used powerful thunderstorm imagery in his sermons and writings.

The thunderstorm and the closely related image of the endangered or wrecked ship, often seen as the ship of state, became frequent symbols of the nation’s turmoil during the 1860’s.(13) Indeed, Heade’s thunderstorm views could be considered visual metaphors for the crises that precipitated the Civil War; for its unprecedented destruction of life, land, and the national identity; and for the seemingly insurmountable challenges of Reconstruction.(14) Jesse H. Berry’s poem “The Nation’s Call” of 1861 was one of many published examples of thunderstorm imagery during the period. Like the arc of clouds and the lightning in Heade’s Approaching Thunder Storm, Berry evoked the “fearful thundercloud of wrath, /Illumined by lightning flashes” that was “gathering on the nation’s brow” and marking “in majesty and awe the path/To victory.”(15) Oliver Wendell Holmes’s “Voyage of the Good Ship Union” of 1862 was one of the best known popularizations of the ship of state as a symbol of the Union. He wrote of the Union, which, with its “tattered sail goes plunging by,” and whose “old flag … still shall fly when from the sky/This black typhoon has past!”(16)

On December 4, 1859, only two months after he had bought Heade’s Storm Clouds on the Coast, Beecher preached a sermon entitled “The Storm and Its Lessons,” in which he linkened the nation’s ultimate salvation from the impending war to the rejuvenating quality of natural events such as the coming, breaking, and passing of a thunderstorm.(17) In 1860, six months before the out-break of the Civil War, Beecher in another sermon clearly alluded to the coming crisis when he described a “picture” much like his Heade. He said the picture had a dark background full of “excitement” and “brewing mischief,” where “the clouds lie lurid on the Southern horizon,” and “storms portentous…seem about to break.” He compared the nation to a ship trying to change course so as to avoid going aground “though waves are beating, and the tempest is upon the ship.”(18)

Beecher, Schenck, and others also turned to storm and ship-of-state imagery during Reconstruction. Heade’s unlocated Point Judith, R.I. and Thunder Storm on Narragansett Bay are reminiscent of Schenck’s 1866 description of America’s horizon as big with tempests, yet…gilded with the foregleams of a broader light and an unclouded day. But these threatening clouds should inspire no terror. For the descending rains and the careering wind and the lightning that burns through the air, are all officered by Him whose voice is in the thunder, and whose mercies are in the rich renovations which gratefully sparkle in the light of the dissolving storm. Schench urged his congregation not to fear “but rather pray for the storm as indispensable to the coveted results.”(19)

Poetry written at the end of the war incorporated similar imagery. In the 1865 poem “Rise O Days from Your Fathomless Deeps,” Walt Whitman wrote:

I sail’d through the storm, I was refresh’d by the storm,

I watch’d with joy the threatening maws of the waves,

I mark’d the white combs where they career’d so high, curling over,

I heard the wind piping, I saw the black clouds….

How the true thunder bellows after the lightning–how bright

the flashes of lightning!

How Democracy with desperate vengeful port strides on,

shown through the dark those flashes of lightning!…

Thunder on! stride on, Democracy! strike with vengeful stroke!(20)

Whereas each of Heade’s thunderstorm paintings may have been seen as a general visual metaphor for the turmoil of the 1860’s, certain motifs held precise meanings for Americans at the time. An obvious symbol is the cross in the lower left-hand corner of Thunder Storm on Narragansett Bay. Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” written in 1861, compares the death of the Union soldiers to Christ’s, thus conjuring the image of the Crucifixion. “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make/men free,” she wrote.(21) The bolt of lightning, which plays such an important role in Heade’s Approaching Thunder Storm and Thunder Storm on Narragansett Bay, was seen by Howe and other writers as the harbinger of God’s arrival at the millenium to save the country from internal strife. As Howe wrote in the “Battle Hymn,” “He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword.”

The writers, orators, and artists of Heade’s time no doubt recognized that his Thunder Storm on Narragansett Bay was laden with meaning, echoing images that were ubiquitous in the nation’s consciousness at a traumatic point in its history. In the future the thunderstorm paintings may be found to reflect still undiscovered aspects of Heade and his time, particularly if more documents that pertain to the life and work of this puzzling artist come to light. Until then the astounding appearance of Thunder Storm on Narragansett Bay will continue to captivate viewers just as its enigmatic meaning will continue to elicit speculation. I would like to thank Doreen Bolger, the curator of paintings and sculpture at the Amon Carter Museum, for her guidance and encouragement. I am also grateful to Claire M. Barry for allowing me to excerpt her technical discussion of Thunder Storm on Narragansett Bay. She is the chief conservator of the museum’s paintings conservation program, jointly sponsored by the museum and the Kimbell Art Museum in Forth Worth.

The traveling exhibition Ominous Hush: The Thunderstorm Paintings of Martin Johnson Heade will remain on view at the Amon Carter Museum until May 1. Future showings will be listed in Calendar. The exhibition was organized by the author, who also wrote the catalogue of the same title. The exhibition is made possible by grants from the Henry Luce Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.

(1)Heade’s purchase of a frame that exactly fitted Thunder Storm on Narragansett Bay is recorded in an entry for February 3, 1868, in Seth M. Vose’s ledger in the collection of the Vose Galleries, Boston.

(2)The painting was mentioned during the Brooklyn exhibition in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 21, 1868, and the New York Commercial Advertiser, March 18, 1868. When it was exhibited at the National Academy of Design in New York City it was mentioned briefly in the New York Evening Post, April 6, 1868; the New York Leader, May 16, 1868; Watson’s Art Journal, June 20, 1868; and in T. C. Grannis, National Academy of Design: Exhibition of 1868 (New York, 19868), p. 87.

(3)Letter from Heade, New York City, to Frederic Edwin Church (1826–1900), begun on April 27, 1868, continued on May 6, and completed on June 16 (Archives of American Art, Washington, D.C.).

(4)John Wilmerding noted the relationship of Heade’s thunderstorm pictures to the turmoil and uncertainty caused by the Civil War in “Under Chastened Light: The Landscape of Rhode Island,” in The Eden of America: Rhode Island Landscapes, 1820–1920, ed. Robert G. Workman (Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, 1986), p. 14. J. Gray Sweeney related the iconography of Thunder Stom on Narragansett Bay to Thomas Cole’s cycle The Voyage of Life, in “A ‘very peculiar’ Picture: Martin Johnson Heade’s Thunderstorm over Narragansett Bay,” Archives of American Art Journal, vol. 28, no. 4 (1988), pp. 2–14.

(5)Heade showed the painting in the 1860 annual exhibition at the National Academy of Design, as confirmed by “National Academy of Design: Fourth Gallery,” in the Home Journal, May 5, 1860, p. 2. The unidentified writer described “the pale foreground, the black water, the dread feeling in the coming storm, and the homely and careless fisherman” as “simply rendered, and present[ing] an effect that is rare and true; the lightning only is faint and a failure.”

(6)The first word in the penciled inscription at the top right of the drawing in Fig. 3, although very faded, appears to be short and to end in “y.” Rocky Point is the only locale on the mainland with a short name that is visible from the spot on Prudence Island with the topographical features shown in the sketches and painting.

(7)Changes in the configuration of the marshes since 1859 preclude a positive identification of Heade’s vantage point, but present-day views to the mainland suggest that it was Sheep Pen Cove or Long Point, which defines the cove on the east.

(8)Heade showed the painting in the 1867 annual exhibition at the National Academy of Design and most likely also in the 1868 annual exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia.

(9)These are Shore Scene, Point Judith of 1863 (in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) and Point Judith, Rhode Island, a closely related nocturnal view probably painted shortly thereafter (in the Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio).

(10)This was noted in an article entitled “The Art Association: Third Day of the Exhibition–More of the Pictures” in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 21, 1868.

(11)”National Academy of Design: Fourth Gallery,” p. 2.

(12)”Art Among the People,” in Eyes and Ears (Boston, 1864), p. 263.

(13)Since Sophocles’s Antigone, storms and ships in distress have symbolized civil unrest. For a recent discussion of the tradition, see David C. Miller, “The Iconology of Wrecked or Stranded Boats in Mid- to Late Nineteenth-Century American Culture,” American Iconology: New Approaches to Nineteenth-Century Art and Literature, ed. David C. Miller (New Haven, Connecticut, 1993), pp. 186–187. See also Herman Melville’s “Conflict of Convictions,” in The Poetry of the American Civil War, ed. Lee Steinmetz (East Lansing, Michigan, 1960), pp. 57–60. In ANTIQUES, July 1988, p. 126, Franklin Kelly draws a parallel between shipwrecks depicted in the paintings of Fitz Hugh Lane (1804–1865) and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Fire of Driftwood” (1849–1850).

(14)Natural moments of foreboding, including thunderstorms, twilights, and sunsets, appear in American landscape painting with greater frequency in the 1860’s than at any other period. They can be found in works by Frederic Edwin Church, Albert Bierstadt, John Frederick Kensett, Sanford Robinson Gifford, George Inness, Fitz Hugh Lane, and others.

(15)Philadelphia Press, May 20, 1861.

(16)Cited in Bugle-Echoes: A Collection of the Poetry of the Civil War Northern and Southern, ed. Francis F. Browne (New York, 1886), pp. 103–106.

(17)The sermon was published in the Independent, December 15, 1859, p. 2.

(18)The sermon, “Against a Compromise of Principle,” was published in the Independent, December 6, 1860, p. 2.

(19)Epochs of Transition: An Oration Delivered Before the American Whig and Cliosophic Societies of the College of New Jersey, Tuesday, June 26th, 1866, by Noah Hunt Schenck, D.D., Rector of Emmanuel Church, Baltimore (Philadelphia, 1867), pp. 24, 33.

(20)Walt Whitman: Complete Poetry and Collected Prose (New York, 1982), pp. 427–429.

(21)Cited in Bugle-Echoes, pp. 66–67.

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