Among the many gaps in the chronology of Martin Johnson Heade’s life and career, his training and early work are particularly poorly documented. A constant theme, however, in the scholarship on Heade has been his association with Edward Hicks, the Quaker preacher and painter, whose role has been suggested, yet never clearly defined. Theodore Stebbins, for instance, in his The Life and Work of Martin Johnson Heade: A Critical Analysis and Catalogue Raisonné (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000), 2-3 noted that although 19th century sources were insistent upon the association, there was no external evidence to corroborate these assertions. The question remains: what, if anything, did Heade learn from Hicks and how did this shape his work.
Scholars since Robert McIntyre have generally accepted this story, owing in part to Heade’s relationship with Thomas Hicks, evident in the portrait of Heade that Thomas Hicks painted in the 1840s. While their acquaintance is made clear, the issue of Edward Hicks’s influence on the young Heade remains opaque. Heade’s earliest documented paintings are portraits, a genre that Hicks largely avoided. While some have tried to link Heade’s early style to Hicks’ teaching—emphasizing its flattened, primitive qualities of paint handling—there are no obvious signs that one can point to. Whether Heade’s early work is the result of his training, or instead a common feature of amateur artists as they progress (here I think of Copley’s earliest work, or even that of Stuart and West) is a question that remains unanswered and rarely asked.
A recently discovered source, however, strengthens Heade’s association with Hicks and sheds new light on the artist’s career in the early 1840s. As reported by The Hunterdon Gazette on April 6, 1842, Heade’s early career involved sign painting as well as portraiture:
The Lambertville Cadets were presented, on Saturday afternoon, March 26th, with a beautiful Flag, by the Ladies of their village. On one side of the Flag is painted the Arms of New Jersey, on the other side the National Arms. The execution of these devices is such as to answer the expectations raised by the known skill and taste of the artist, Mr. Martin J. Heed.
This flag has been prepared expressly for this occasion, and while it reflects great credit upon the artist, it will at the same time be still greater credit to you who bear it, on account of the source from whence it came.
The flag has not been located, but its commission forms the strongest corroboration of the link between Hicks (painting carriages and signs) and Heade since it is the only known mention of the latter’s work outside of easel painting. It demonstrates as well that while Heade was struggling to gain a name for himself as a portrait painter—he exhibited as early as 1841 at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts—he was also taking commissions typical of rural and itinerant portraitists of the time. Perhaps in time, when more of these types of commissions come to light, a broader understanding of Heade’s early career will emerge.