In 1863, Heade had undertaken a major project to record the hummingbirds of Brazil.1 His Gems of Brazil was one of the first three scientific publications devoted to hummingbirds.2 Rather than illustrating dead specimens, Heade drew his birds from life. The Emperor of Brazil, Dom Pedro II, impressed with his efforts, named Heade to The Order of the Rose, the highest honor awarded a foreigner.

After going to London to execute the elaborate chromolithography, however, Heade became discouraged with the limits of the process and abandoned the project. The results, although disappointing to his eye, would have sufficed to secure Heade’s reputation in the history of bird illustration.3 [Fig. 7a + b]

Heade’s standards of excellence were scientific, the Monograph of the Trochilidae published by the English ornithologist John Gould from 1849 to 1887, and Gould’s phrase “flying jewels” may have inspired Heade’s title.4 The plates for Gould’s monograph, also reproduced by chromolithography, satisfied middle-class expectations for natural history in domestic settings. They removed specimens from the wild and centered them in a tidy fashion on mostly white pages, much like patterns for wallpaper and china services.

As Gould’s note prefacing the third part acknowledged, “for bibliophiles and ladies it is an album of elegant drawings… [with] nothing of the pretention of academic memoirs.”5 Gould’s plates lacked Heade’s daring colors, but possessed iridescence, the result of pioneering methods using gold leaf, pigment, and varnish by their artist, Gould’s wife, Elizabeth Cozen Gould.6 Without comparable institutional affiliation, Heade could not compete with the scale of Gould’s book, a best seller of 360 plates, some produced after his death in 1881.

Curator and taxidermist for the Zoological Society of England, Gould had collected 5,000 skins of almost 300 species of hummingbirds, many of which he displayed mounted at the Great Exhibition of 1851.7 For all their achievements, however, neither John nor Eliza Gould had traveled to the Neotropics.8

Heade held the advantage of experience, and, missing the element of the outdoors, he expressed his regrets that Gould’s “great work” was “not made up from personal knowledge… but gathered from travelers and explorers.”9 One of these “travelers and explorers,” of course, was the great Charles Darwin, who had sent bird collections from his voyage on the Beagle to John Gould for identification.10

Following the Civil War, Charles Darwin’s ideas about the origin of species by natural selection changed the study of natural history in the United States.11 Louis Agassiz’s position was still secure, however, and in 1865-1866, Nathaniel Thayer funded Agassiz’s grand survey of the fishes of the Amazon River. In Brazil, Agassiz, his wife Elizabeth, and band of assistants (including William James) traveled the river under the hospitable patronage of Dom Pedro II, and they returned with untold numbers of fish barreled in alcohol.12

Agassiz had consolidated alliances for his views through a network of persons from all walks of life, and he asked Heade, in Brazil again in 1870, to procure “50 to 100 eggs” of hummingbirds “for scientific purposes.” Agassiz was planning to return to Brazil in 1871, and a mutual friend, the Rev. James Cooley Fletcher, a missionary in Brazil, may have put the two men in touch.13

Heade, ever the realist, complained about the impossibility of the jungle task and dismissed the assignment as folly. He joined a growing company. Martha Maxwell, citing Agassiz’s influence on her unusual career as taxidermist in the distant Rockies, chided herself, “had I known how to use this genius I should have done more work for science, art, and myself and less for the moths.”14 George Brown Goode, a museum leader in Washington, D.C., also warned of the dangers of “individual influences” during “the period of Agassiz,” more recently described by writer Christoph Irmscher as “Agassiz Agonistes.” 15

In 1871, Darwin published the Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, but did not confine the entire contents to human evolution. Chapter XIII, for example, discussed the “secondary sexual characters of birds.” Darwin wrote that the ornamental plumage of male hummingbirds, so lovely to human observers, “is due to the selection by the females of the more beautiful males.”16

These, the smallest of birds, were, in Darwin’s opinion, “the most quarrelsome,” and he described their “season of love” as a “battle” between members of the same species “to show themselves to the greatest advantage before admiring females.”17 Gould’s “splendid volumes” cited in Darwin’s discussion are not the source, however, for the two black and white woodcuts (figs. 48 and 49) illustrating Darwin’s thesis of love and strife in the popular American edition.18

These life-size images of male and female hummingbirds, taken from Alfred Edmund Brehm’s 1891 Tierleben, good as they are, fail to depict the little birds in flight.19 The “flying jewels” look like suspended pendants, specimens with still wings. Here, again, Heade gained the advantage and mastered the challenge of showing hummingbirds in flight. Paintings now at the Shelburne Museum, Vermont, and National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., show hummingbirds in various poses, but Heade has made an important change. He has shown contests between males of different species. He has either missed Darwin’s fundamental point about sexual selection, or he has adapted Darwin’s thesis for a personal science fiction.20