Martin Johnson Heade: Political Correctness in the 19th Century

By Bill Gage, Department Head- James D Julia Inc.

As part of the February auction this year we are pleased to offer an important painting by Martin Johnson Heade. Heade is most widely known for his iconic marsh sunset scenes as well as detailed renderings of Hummingbirds and wildflowers.

He was born in Lumberville Pennsylvania in 1819 and started his career as a portrait painter, in 1848 he visited Europe several times and visited Italy on his second trip. On this trip he broadened his subject matter to include genre painting and one of his first examples was “Roman Newsboys”. A large oil on canvas depicting 2 boys hawking newspapers on an Italian street.

It was in 1848 that clashes between the movement to unify Italy and the secular government of the Roman states had come to a climax. It was the Risorgimento against Pope Pious IX and the Pope was put into exile.

It was this political confrontation that Heade represented in his rendering of the “Roman Newsboys”. It was the pro-Risorgimento movement that favored the establishment of a democratic Republic instead of the rule of Pope Pious IX. The two boys offer a Pro-Risorgimento newspaper to an approaching pedestrian whose shadow is cast on their street side stucco wall.

Behind the wall are torn and battered posters, caricatures and slogans indicating the changing political scene? The boys are dressed differently, one standing and the other sitting on a high post. The standing boy wears a dunce type cap with the Popes name and the seated boy wears a liberty type hat With “Pirlone” written on it This being short for the publication IL Don Pirlone. This with the addition of the red band to the hat showed the astute observer that the republican cause was being represented.

It seems that Heade is portraying a changing political scene that is representing the shift away from a secular rule to a more democratic republic. Excited by these events he painted this political painting relevant to its times.

After returning to America in 1849, when the political conflict had subsided the Pope was restored to power. The revolution was old news and Heade’s painting was out of date. It was now time to paint “Roman Newsboys II”

As Elisa Tamarkin, Associate professor at the University of California at Berkeley summarizes: “So Heade repainted it, but now the boys hand out a newspaper with “Roma” in the title, since Il Don Pirlone had died with the republic. The revolutionary posters are nearly gone and the graffiti is wiped clean. The picture is almost the same, but there is less urgency this time and the closer newsboy has swung his leg around to the front of the post to sit more stably. He wears a regular street cap instead of a Greek cap. In the first version, the window looks into a void, but, much larger now, it is also brighter, flat and emphatically barred in a way that defies the illusion of deep space. As we look forward into a painting that seems to have lost its faith in picturing the news, our “window on the world” is blocked. The shadow from the first version has now grown longer, as if it were later in the day; the way it hangs over the newsboy is reminiscent of a gallows. A bishop’s hat encroaches from the lower right, and while there is still an imminent hat to the left, here it is old hat. The bench behind the post is gone with the extra stack of newspapers, which is to say that there are no “extras” in the version of the picture that admits its untimeliness and irrelevance and speaks more to repetition, variation and return”.

You might say that the painting had been made “politically correct” for the new times in which it existed.