In 1980, art historian Barbara Novak, reevaluating paintings of nature by Heade, Gifford, and Kensett, described “one of the first major inventions of American [United States] visual culture.”1 Well into the 1860s, Heade painted light-filled coastal landscapes, lake scenes, and salt marshes, with an occasional solitary boatsman, lone fisherman, or duck hunters.
Some of his best-known paintings show Narragansett Bay, Lake George, and Newburyport.2[Fig. 2] By 1861, meteorological effects became his hallmark, and Heade’s works marked the dark hush before the storm, the lingering colors of twilight, and glowing haze of sunrise.3 [Fig. 3]
During the decade of the Civil War, Heade made trips to Brazil in 1863-1864, to Nicaragua and Colombia in 1866, and to Colombia, Panama, and Jamaica in 1870.4 From graceful palm tree to ominous volcano, Heade managed a “reconciliation of detail and effect” in landscape paintings expressing esthetics derived from Humboldt and influenced by Church.5 Heade also continued to sustain Thoreau’s abiding philosophy in pictures of “stillness and serene composure.”6
During the 1870s, Heade ceased to include human figures in his landscapes. This omission made new demands of his viewers. His work invited viewers of both genders to contemplate natural vistas rather than stalk in silent compliance with hidden marksmen, or, one might add, real-estate speculators. The viewer became companion in nature with the artist, leaving no tracks in nature.
From the vantage of travel, Heade watched frontier expansion, and moving to Florida, a last frontier, he reexamined the issues of nature and the public good. Settling down in St. Augustine, Heade found an acceptable esthetic middle ground for his art and personal contentment. In his green and pink landscapes, the wet meadows of Florida’s eastern coast softly beckon with radiant fullness.
These pictures were not scenes followed by popular “after the hunt” displays of dead ducks, hanging rabbits, and guns.7 Complete and satisfying in their own right, Heade’s largest panoramas, 52 x 96 inches, required no sequels. For those “new to Southern scenery” and those “who dread[ed] the sea,” Heade introduced the artistic possibilities of the “Great Florida Marsh,” or, in the words of another Florida promoter, Harriet Beecher Stowe, “the inside passage.”8
Heade also painted portraits, most now lost, and floral arrangements, parlor pictures. Along with his landscapes, this diverse body of pictures, as well as friendships with painters Church and F.O.C. Darley would have sufficed to secure Heade’s place in the annals of American art. Heade, however, developed another vocation, after having been, as he confessed, “almost monomaniac on hummingbirds” since childhood.9
In Florida, he frequently wrote about the charms of the little “mutton chops” that were regular visitors at his abode.10 For Heade, hummingbirds were more than a garden pastime for senior years, and one writer has suggested that his growing interest in these uniquely New World birds led the artist from “prosaic portraits” to deeper intellectual pursuits.11 Heade first painted the tiny birds in 1862. His signature compositions situated hummingbirds with orchids in Amazonia. [Fig. 4]
In 1862, Darwin published his book on the fertilization of orchids by insects to showcase adaptation in the plant, as well as the animal world, and by 1904, the popularity of the subject required a popular edition with additional illustrations, many by Fritz Muller of Brazil.12 Heade, in England on two known occasions, could have visited the orchid herbarium at Kew Gardens and possibly, too, the collection of living orchids at the Royal Botanic Garden.
In the United States also, orchids had become popular hothouse ornamentals. Enthusiasts enjoyed colored illustrations of them in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, and the St. Augustine Historical Society owns Heade’s birds-eye views of two of his favorites, Laelia purpurata and Cattleya spp., native to Mexico and Brazil.13 [Fig. 5]
Victorian tastes had created a market for flower paintings combining science and sentiment, a genre in which Heade, too, excelled.14 Are the compositions of fighting hummingbirds and neotropical orchids also parlor pictures? [Fig. 6] Both the realism and intimacy of Heade’s finished oils are somewhat misleading, because bees, not hummingbirds, pollinate these orchids.15
A competent amateur ornithologist, Heade knew his subject and took special pleasure in feeding hummingbirds, nectar-feeders, from a small tube filled with sugar water, which he carried on his person. Heade also maintained his own collection of study skins.16 If not scientific, what then was his interest in these bright tiny pugilists?
- Robert Hughes, “The Unedited Manuscript of God,” Time August 11, 1980, reviewing Novak (1980).
- The M. and M. Karolik Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA, includes many of Heade’s best-known landscapes. For discussion of one of the most important, see J. Gray Sweeney, “A ‘Very Peculiar’ Picture: Martin Johnson Heade’s Thunderstorm over Narragansett Bay,” Archives of American Art Journal 28, No. 4 (1988): 2-14.
- John I. H. Baur was the first to use the term luminism with regard to American landscape painting; see John Wilmerding, “Introduction,” p. 12, in John Wilmerding, ed., American Light: The Luminist Movement, 1850-1875, Paintings, Drawings, Photographs (Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, 1980).
- Manthorne (1989), p.59.
- Novak (1980), p. 123.
- Albert Gelpi, “White Light in the Wilderness: Landscape & Self in Nature’s Nation,” p. 302, in Wilmerding (1980).
- See, for example, the popular and often imitated paintings of hunter’s equipment and dead game by William M. Harnett (1848?-1892), discussed by Alfred Frankenstein, The Reality of Appearance: The Trompe L’Oeil Tradition in American Painting (New York: New York Graphic Society, 1970) pp. 80-83, catalog for a traveling exhibition of the same title.
- Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896), Palmetto-Leaves (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1968), p. 15. This is a facsimile of the 1873 edition.
- Didymus, “Taming Hummingbirds,” Forest and Stream, 14 April 1892, p. 348.
- Didymus, “More Hummingbird Phantasies,” Forest and Stream, 22 May 1897, p. 405.
- Elizabeth McCausland, “Martin Johnson Heade, 1819-1904,” Panorama 1, No. 1 (October 1945): 5.
- See the unpaginated preface to Charles Darwin, The Various Contrivances by Which Orchids are Fertilized by Insects (London: John Murray, 1904). Heade could have consulted the first or second edition, which, like this popular edition (p. 143), discusses the fertilization of Cattleya.
- See Martin Johnson Heade: The Floral and Hummingbird Studies from the St. Augustine Historical Society (Boca Raton: Boca Raton Museum of Art, 1992), catalog for a traveling exhibition, organized in 1992-1995, by Timothy A. Eaton, now of Eaton Fine Art, Inc., West Palm Beach, FL.
- Katherine Morrison McClinton, “American Victorian Flower Painting: The Poetry of Flowers,” American Art & Antiques March-April 1979, pp. 85-89. Examples by Heade include Four Cherokee Roses and Magnolia in an Opalescent Vase (1885-95) at The Henry Morrison Flagler Museum, Palm Beach, FL, and discussed by Charlotte M. Porter, “Beastly Bouquets: Martin Johnson Heade, Naturalist” paper presented at the Florida Historical Society Meeting, St. Augustine, May 1992; see also discussion in Barbara Novak and Timothy A. Eaton, Martin Johnson Heade: A Survey: 1840-1900 (West Palm Beach: Eaton Fine Art, Inc., 2001)
- Darwin’s title of 1862 says it all, but thanks, too, to Dr. Mark Whitten, Orchid Biologist, Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida, Gainesville, personal communication.
- Didymus, “Hummingbirds,” Forest and Stream, 18 August 1982, p. 212.