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Martin Johnson Heade (1819 - 1904)

Lot 71: Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904)


May 19, 2005
New York, NY, US

More About this Item


Hummingbird Perched on an Orchid Plant
signed and dated 'M.J. Heade 1901' (lower left)
oil on canvas
20 1/4 x 15 1/4 in. (51.4 x 38.7 cm.)

Artist or Maker

Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904)


New York, Coe Kerr Gallery, American Luminism, October 25-November 25, 1978.
New York, Andrew Crispo Gallery, Inc., American Masters of the 19th and 20th Centuries, April-May 1982.


T.E. Stebbins, Jr., The Life and Work of Martin Johnson Heade, New Haven, Connecticut, 1975, pp. 152, 281, nos. 83, 361, illustrated.
T.E. Stebbins, Jr., The Life and Work of Martin Johnson Heade: A Critical Analysis and Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven, Connecticut, 2000, pp. 164, 349, no. 608, illustrated.


With Robert Palmer Antiques, Bauckville, New York.
Kennedy Galleries, New York.
Dr. and Mrs. David B. Pall, Roslyn, New York.
Andrew Crispo Gallery, Inc., New York.


Celebrated landscape and still life painter Martin Johnson Heade became fascinated with the tropical flora and fauna, particularly the orchids, he encountered while he was studying and painting hummingbirds in Brazil between 1863 and 1865. It was not, however, until after returning to the United States from Jamaica in 1870 that Heade began to consider painting the flowers. He combined the two elements, orchids and hummingbirds, for the first time in 1871 and the resultant works have since been considered highpoints of Heade's artistic achievements.

As Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr., notes, Heade's orchid paintings were as groundbreaking and revolutionary as they were beautiful. "Although the orchid was a prized plant among travelers, naturalists, and illustrators, it was little known in both the fine arts and the popular flower books. Its sexual implications were seemingly too powerful for Victorian society in England and the United States, and on the occasions it is referred to in the Flora's Lexicon and similar volumes, its meaning is simply given as, 'belle.' As the author of one such book wrote, 'In this symbollical assemblage the author has carefully avoided all indelicate allusions or double-entendre that could be offensive to modesty. The orchid was rarely painted before Heade's time, and not much after it.'" (T.E. Stebbins, Jr., The Life and Work of Martin Johnson Heade: A Critical Analysis and Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven, Connecticut, 2000, p. 93)

Hummingbird Perched on an Orchid Plant follows the general pattern that Heade developed for the series-- he usually emphasized foreground objects, contrasting them with a hazy vista in the background--and he contrasted the soft delicateness of the orchids with the pungent, bold hues of the birds. In the present example, the pale lavender, pink and rose of the fragile flower at the right and the thoat of the hummingbird, combined with rich greens of the forest and the misty gray skies in the distance, truly create a sense of the vibrancy and fecundity of nature.

Stebbins writes, "Heade painted orchid and hummingbird compositions regularly throughout the 1870s and 1880s and more sporadically during the 1890s up to the year of his death. Most of the later pictures depict a single pink blossom of the Cattleya labiata with one or two hummingbirds, seen amid tropical mountains. These pictures are infused with warmth and sensuality; they are as much about color and atmosphere as about natural history." (The Life and Work of Martin Johnson Heade: A Critical Analysis and Catalogue Raisonné, p. 103)

In this spectacular example, the hummingbird is a male Peruvian sheartail (Thaumastura cora) and the orchid is a Cattleya labiata. Heade's renderings of plant and animal life reflect the public's parallel interests in science and in South America that were emerging in the United States during the second half of the nineteenth century. Scholars including Stebbins and Katherine Manthorne have considered Heade's South American paintings in light of the 1859 publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species, as well as the exhibition of Frederic Church's Heart of the Andes in the same year. Unlike his more scientifically oriented predecessors, Audubon and John Gould, however, Heade captures not only the nineteenth century fascination with cataloguing the natural world, but also the Victorian sense of both the teeming abundance of nature and its latent power.

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