Unpacking meaning from Martin Johnson Heade’s Gremlin in the Studio I, 1871-1875, and II, 1865-1875, presents a comical challenge which lends itself toward studies on trompe l’oeil, American Transcendentalism, Idealism, and the humorous personality of the artist. The works are multivalent as representations of trompe l’oeil and landscape exist within the same scenes. Throughout Heade’s career we see his amazing ability to depict reality through his renderings of nature. His skill in portraying the subject is best seen in his flower studies, hummingbird works, and landscapes. The Gremlin in the Studio works present a shift away from this method of constructing paintings. Evident in these works is Heade’s self awareness of the inherent idealism within the composition of landscape paintings during the late nineteenth century. Heade makes an impactful statement by combining Transcendental principles with a humorous depiction in order to suggest an awareness concerning the over idealization of the American landscape.
Martin Johnson Heade is a particularly challenging artist because his works can only tangentially be described as Hudson River School. The specific pieces in his oeuvre which can be lightly categorized in this way are his haystack scenes. These classifications tie into the notion that the Gremlin in the Studio paintings are a reflective comment on the hyper reality other artists in the movement were notorious for depicting. In Albert Bierstadt’s, Rocky Mountain Lander’s Peak, 1863, it is obvious the artist took liberties with the illustration of landscape. There is a sense of accuracy in the minutiae while the overall scene lends itself toward imaginative artistic license. By including the gremlin below the typical haystack scene, there is an amusing acknowledgement that these works are, in fact, paintings and not pictures of actual landscapes. The sawhorses and gremlin achieve a literal representation of impossibility which makes light of the idealism inherent in the works of other prominent Hudson River School artists.
The Transcendental views of Ralph Waldo Emerson were fundamental to American philosophy in the late nineteenth century. The importance self reliance is an imperative aspect of this concept and is well reflected when Emerson writes, “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius.” Heade’s physical painting of the gremlin allows for his own self awareness to enter into the discussion of these works and connects nicely to Emerson’s statement. By illustrating this figure, the painting becomes infused with Heade’s views. His own thoughts on the imagery of landscape are reflected through his conscious choice to paint these gremlins. This is indicative of his own Transcendental genius. Through Heade’s own original vision, the painting becomes reliant on his perceptions. This is substantiated through the implications exemplified through the gremlins relationships to their above haystack landscapes. In these associations, the awareness of the artist as an active participant in the creation of these scenes comes to the forefront of the conversation and promotes the intellect of Heade’s artistic truths.
Transcendentalism and idealism are fostered through Heade’s use of trompe l’oeil in his Gremlin in the Studio I, 1871-1875, and II, 1865-1875. These paintings are indicative of an artistic understanding in nineteenth century American philosophies. The historical context of this period makes for a pragmatic comparison between Heade’s knowledge of the philosophical make up of American society and the dramatizations inherent in Hudson River School painting. Through the comical gremlin depictions, artistic genius flourishes and presents a wonderful presentation of the inimitability characteristic to the work of Martin Johnson Heade.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo, and Brooks Atkinson. “Self Reliance,” The Complete Essays and Other Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: Modern Library, 1940.
Kornhauser, Elizabeth Mankin, Amy Ellis, and Maureen Miesmer. Hudson River School: Masterworks from the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. New Haven: London, 2003.
Mastai, Marie-Louise D’Otrange. Illusion in Art: Trompe L’oeil: A History of Pictorial Illusionism. New York: Abaris Books, 1975.
Stebbins, Theodore E., Martin Johnson Heade, Janet L. Comey, and Karen E. Quinn. The Life and Work of Martin Johnson Heade: A Critical Analysis and Catalogue Raisonné. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.