Martin Johnson Heade 1819 - 1904
- Martin Johnson Heade
- Two Sun Angel Hummingbirds on a Branch Near Two Orchids
- signed M.J. Heade, l.l.
- oil on canvas
By descent in the family to the present owners
Worcester, Massachusetts, Worcester Museum of Art, All That Is Glorious Around Us: Paintings From the Hudson River School, March-June 1999
Worcester, Massachusetts, Worcester Museum of Art (on extended loan)
Theodore Stebbins, Jr., The Life and Works of Martin Johnson Heade, New Haven, Connecticut, 1975, no. 278, illustrated
Theodore Stebbins, Jr., The Life and Work of Martin Johnson Heade: A Critical Analysis and Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven, Connecticut, 2000, no. 610, p. 350, illustrated
Martin Johnson Heade developed a self-proclaimed 'monomaniacal' fascination with hummingbirds as a child, specifically traveling to Brazil in 1863 to observe and paint them. He intended to publish "a large and elegant album" of lithographs based upon his Brazilian hummingbird paintings, which featured small vignettes of bird pairs in their local habitats. Though he was unable to secure the two-hundred subscriptions needed to print his "Gems of Brazil," his interest in hummingbirds nevertheless continued throughout his career, as he developed more complex and comprehensive compositions. In the years following his third and final trip to South America in 1870, he painted some fifty-five canvases incorporating orchids into his bird paintings, including Two 'Sun Angel' Hummingbirds on a Branch Near Two Orchids. Painted sometime between 1890 and 1904, Two Sun Angels depicts one of Heade's favorite orchids, the Catteleya labiata, next to two amethyst woodstar hummingbirds. The jewel-toned birds pop against the lush green landscape, while the fuchsia orchids complement the amethyst throats of the hummingbirds. Heade ties the composition together by accenting the distant mountains with the same fuchsia highlights. As Janet Comey has noted, "Heade took particular care in portraying the iridescent quality of the hummingbird's plumage. He applied paint in many layers, and to convey the shimmering quality of the feathers on the throat, cap, or breast, he used a thin glaze of a thick white underlayer of impasto" (Martin Johnson Heade, 1999, p. 74).
Heade studied hummingbirds and orchids with the eye of a naturalist, noting during his time in Brazil that "there is probably no country where a person interested in ornithology, entomology, botany, mineralogy or beautiful scenery could find so much to keep him entertained." He was determined to paint hummingbirds from life and outdo his predecessors who had painted from preserved specimens, studying the various species' nesting habits and diets before preserving his own set of birds for future reference. His careful investigations are reflected in his increasingly detailed compositions of the hummingbirds and their tropical habitat, and his continued development of these pictures reflects prevailing scientific thought, notably Charles Darwin's 1859 publication On the Origin of the Species. Katherine Manthorne has discussed the evolution of Heade's compositions suggesting that it "closely parallels the direction of Darwin's researches, which were replacing a static view of nature with a perception of the organic world and a dynamic and interrelated system" (Martin Johnson Heade, 1999, p. 157).
Heade was not the first American artist to travel to South America in search of tropical subject matter. He had lived and worked in the same Tenth Street Studio Building in New York as Frederic Church, and would have been keenly aware of Church's popular picture The Heart of the Andes (1859, Metropolitan Museum of Art). However, unlike Church, who made numerous oil sketches of the tropical landscape, Heade executed almost none. Instead he filled his notebooks with careful studies of flowers and birds, which appear repeatedly in his later compositions. The central orchid in Two Sun Angels, for example, can be found in at least ten other works by Heade. As Karen Quinn noted in the catalogue for the 1999 exhibition of Heade's work organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, "The originality of Heade's orchid-and-hummingbird compositions lies not in combining birds and flowers, or even the inclusion of landscape backgrounds, for these devices were already established in ornithological illustration in the nineteenth century.... Heade's inventiveness came in combining dramatic, enlarged foreground flowers with (usually) a pair of hummingbirds before an evocative, believable tropical landscape. The result was a new kind of painting, equally still life and landscape, which possesses a great sensual and emotional power" (Martin Johnson Heade, 1999, p. 110).