As an artist, Heade preferred low flat marshes to the mountains made famous by the Hudson River School, and his travels in the Neotropics provided a larger context for his artistic expression in temperate zones, especially in north Florida.1 [Fig. 8] His efforts, however, to unify the esthetics of large luminous sunsets with tiny iridescent feathers underwent a sea change.
As Heade’s Gems of Brazil demonstrated, the artist found it easier to exhibit wild tropical views in North American sitting rooms than to project the Anglo concept of the nature album upon South American landscapes. The theory of evolution also changed ideas about design. Being the right size and shape was more than a matter of “mutton chops.”
Heade showed his hummingbirds and orchids as species, occupiers of specific spaces that are integral parts of the landscape construct.2 These specific spaces compounded the difficulties noted by Darwin in the Descent of Man of human interference in natural events. Should the ethical person, confronting cruel actions in nature, watch, intervene, invest, walk away, or write about them? Heade the artist was an observer, but Heade the writer was not a “quiet spectator.”
Didymus saw himself as part of a human and natural community, in which he had a substantial investment, and his proposals enlarged Darwin’s idea of artificial selection in a social context.3 They added the legal dimension of limits, regulation, and enforcement to then current hunt-club protocol; they expanded the concept of wildlife management to include non-game species, and they emphasized the potential of human agency in the destruction of the natural world. Considering these issues, possessing the words and courage to express them, and finding a forum, Heade was ahead of his times.4
For Heade, the need to preserve wilderness required wilderness policies. As he promulgated wildlife management in Florida, Didymus recast Darwinian issues as human choices, and he enlarged Darwin’s term, artificial selection, to mean political selection. Didymus also enlarged the arena of human choices with the prospects, good and bad, of technology.
Heade began his observations in a biosphere redefined for intellectuals by Alexander von Humboldt and arrived at his final conclusions in twentieth-century landscapes redefined by electric lights. He traveled in a global sphere reconfigured on paper by railroad magnates, and he maximized opportunities that culminated in the building of the Panama Canal. These were not distant issues. Thomas Edison, who procured the cement contract for the canal, lived in Fort Myers, Florida, where he experimented with rubber for his good friend and closest neighbor, Harvey Firestone.
Agassiz’s network sought out Heade, a man of modest means, to collect specimens, but Didymus condemned the outreach of museums like the MCZ as the biggest hunt club of them all. Design, Agassiz’s concern with comparative zoology, was by the Columbia Exposition, a partnership of art and technology. In the mid-nineteenth century, the technology of national expansion did not have a place in esthetics derived from Humboldt’s Kosmos.
Didymus later focussed upon the environmental impact of expansion made possible by technology, but Heade the artist did not select the same themes for artistic focus. Among Heade’s artistic studies are none of the piles of trashed fish, vandalized sea turtle nests, and slaughtered animals described in Didymus’s published letters.
Heade’s landscapes omit the rows of tree stumps, burned mangroves, and drainage canals that have made them possible. No foe of technological intrusion, Heade tried to balance nature’s good and the public good. How was this seamless transition possible? The answer suggested by Heade’s career seems to be travel as an intense intellectual experience in contrast to travel as a holiday from thought.
During Heade’s lifetime, the windows of railroad coaches permitted observation of almost all of the landscapes shown in his paintings. In these vistas, the viewer scans details of the foreground, or scenic façade, while grand events of nature proceed uninterrupted in the atmospheric vault above.
Access by public transportation allowed the artist to select visual qualities worthy of artistic reproduction and permitted others to repeat the artist’s experience, but for how long? Tourists and trophy hunters also numbered among travelers in a co-dependent economy of nature. Artificial selection included technological selection, and Heade’s realization that human choices and human inventions were sundowning natural selection in specific spaces gives his landscapes paintings additional meaning and menace.
- Barbara Babcock Lassiter, American Wilderness: The Hudson River School of Painting (Garden City: Doubleday & Co., 1978), pp. 122-123.
- James Paradis, “Darwin and Landscape,” p. 85, in James Paradis and Thomas Postlewait, eds., Victorian Science and Victorian Values: Literary Perspectives (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1985).
- For discussion of Darwinism and social applications, see Robert M. Young, “Darwinism is Social,” pp. 609-638, in Kohn (1985).
- For prevailing sentiments, see Richard West Sellars, Preserving Nature in the National Parks: A History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), pp. 7-27.