Florida Museum of Natural History

Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904)

Heade's Natural History Interests

In 1863, Heade had undertaken a major project to record the hummingbirds of Brazil.31 His Gems of Brazil was one of the first three scientific publications devoted to hummingbirds.32 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.33 [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.34 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."35 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.36 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 1851.37 For all their achievements, however, neither John nor Eliza Gould had traveled to the Neotropics.38 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."39 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.40

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.41 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.42

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.43 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."44 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 Christophe Irmscher as "Agassiz Agonistes." 45

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."46 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."47 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.48 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.49 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.50

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31. Didymus (14 April 1892), p. 348.

32. For example, Robert Henry Welker, Birds & Men: American Birds in Science, Art, Literature, and Conservation, 1800-1900 (New York: Atheneum, 1966) makes no mention of Heade.

33. Novak and Eaton (2001), pp. 26-27, and S. Peter Dance, The Art of Natural History: Animal Illustrators and Their Work (Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 1978), p. 119.

34. Dance (1978) disagrees, but Sacheverell Sitwell, Fine Bird Books, 1700-1900 (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1990), pp. 39-40, considers the Monograph of the Trochilidae, or Family of Humming-birds (London: 1849-1887), completed by Richard Bowdler Sharpe, to be the greatest work of Gould (1804-1881).

35.Gould's note prefacing the third part, quoted by Dance (1978), p.119.

36. As early as 1832, Elizabeth Gould began drawings, now owned by the British Museum (Natural History) in London. The best description of her lithographic technique is Hugh Kennedy, Sue Ann Houser, Debra Gann, and Mary Beth Reiss, Catalogue 90: A Catalogue of Ornithological Illustration 1660-1880 (New York: W. Graham Arader III, 1989), p. 16.

37. Gould's collection of hummingbirds is housed at the British Museum (Natural History).

38. Dance (1978), p. 122.

39. Didymus (14 April 1892), p. 384.

40. In 5 parts in 3 volumes, Charles Darwin, John Gould, Thomas Campbell Eyton, and George Robert Gray described the birds in The Zoology of the Voyage of the H.M.S.Beagle, Under the Command of Captain Fitzroy, R.N., During the years 1832-1836 (London: 1838-1840), an amazing turnaround by any standards. Gould had prepared descriptions of some of the Australian and Galapagos Island birds by February 1837; see Duncan M. Porter, "The Beagle Collector and His Collections," p. 989, in David Kohn, ed., The Darwinian Heritage (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985).

41.Cynthia Eagle Russell, Darwin in America: The Intellectual Response, 1865-1912 (San Francisco: W.H. Freeman, 1976), p. 147.

42. Winsor (1991), pp. 66-76; for James's response to Agassiz's rarely discussed Brazilian photo albums, see Christoph Irmscher, The Poetics of Natural History from John Bartram to William James (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1999), pp. 236-281.

43. Didymus (14 April 1892), p. 348. With D. P. Kidder, J. C. Fletcher (1823-1901) was author of Brazil and the Brazilians (Philadelphia: Childs and Peterson, 1857), a work which may have prompted Agassiz's photo albums; see also Manthorne (1989), pp. 118-119.

44. Quoted by Maxine Benson, Martha Maxwell, Rocky Mountain Naturalist (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986), pp. 158-159. At the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, Heade may have seen the work of Maxwell (1831-1881) in the Women's Pavillion, where she was featured as a gun-toting, bronc-busting cougar killer. In fact, she was a college graduate.

45. Sally Gregory Kohlstedt, ed., The Origins of Natural Science in America: The Essays of George Brown Goode (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991), p.156. Goode (1851-1896) also cautioned against giving Agassiz "too much prominence."

46. Charles Darwin, Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (corrected 2nd ed.; New York: A. L. Fowle, n.d.), p. 396.

47. Ibid., p. 367.

48. Ibid., p. 394-395.

49. Dance (1978), p. 122.

50. For a different interpretation, co-evolution in Heade's compositions, see Sara Godwin, Hummingbirds (New York: Mallard Press, 1991), p. 28.

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