Lot 49
  • 49

Martin Johnson Heade 1819 - 1904

500,000 - 700,000 USD
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  • Martin Johnson Heade
  • Two Hummingbirds at a Nest
  • signed M.J. Heade and dated 1863 on the reverse (prior to lining)
  • oil on canvas
  • 9 1/2 by 12 1/4 inches
  • (21.1 by 31.1 cm)


George P. Guerry, New York
Robert Brovaco Gallery, Montclair, New Jersey, by 1956 (acquired from the above; sold: Sotheby's New York, May 25, 1994, lot 28, illustrated)
Acquired by the present owner at the above sale


Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr., The Life and Works of Martin Johnson Heade, New Haven, Connecticut, 1975, no. 69, p. 225, illustrated
Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr., The Life and Works of Martin Johnson Heade: A Critical Analysis and Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven, Connecticut, 2000, no. 331, p. 284, illustrated


This work is in very good condition. The canvas is lined. There is craquelure in the landscape in foreground. Under UV: there is one dot of inpainting at the lower right side of the nest, and a thin horizontal line addressing frame abrasion at the bottom edge.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

Martin Johnson Heade’s life-long interest in the natural world, particularly tropical hummingbirds, prompted the artist to visit Brazil in September of 1863. As the artist confessed in an 1892 interview, “From early boyhood I have been almost monomaniac on hummingbirds” (Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr., The Life and Works of Martin Johnson Heade, New Haven, Connecticut, 1975, p. 129). This enthrallment stayed with Heade through his early years of training with Edward Hicks and his formal studies at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, as well as during his later trips to Europe where he refined his oeuvre

The belief in a fundamental connection between man and nature first manifested itself in the writings of Alexander von Humboldt and Charles Darwin. Inspired by their work, artists such as Frederic Church and Heade traveled to South America in search of exotic subject matter for their paintings. After arriving in Brazil, Heade was immediately enamored with the tropics and shared his first impressions in his journal: “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” (Ibid, p. 71). 

Heade remained in Brazil until the spring of 1864, observing his beloved hummingbirds and documenting their plumage, habitats, environments and diets in notebooks, sketches and paintings. He left the tropics with specimens and detailed studies, allowing him to produce paintings of these vividly colored and iridescently feathered birds in his studio. Inspired by the commercial success of John James Audubon’s Birds of America, Heade intended to publish an album of chromolithographs based on his paintings titled The Gems of Brazil. Unfortunately he was unable to secure the two-hundred subscribers required to fund the publication and the project languished. The paintings which were to serve as templates for the project, however, achieved great commercial and financial success. Exhibitions of the works in South America and London were so well-received and the paintings so sought after by collectors that Heade would go on to produce approximately 55 canvases focusing on hummingbirds. 

Though Heade was a gifted naturalist and ardent ornithologist, the composition of Two Hummingbirds at a Nest reveals his unwavering devotion to the romantic narrative ideology embraced by many nineteenth century artists. He depicts two jewel-toned birds harmoniously perched on either side of their nest in the midst of the jungle. While Heade's choice of fauna is scientifically accurate and his birds are anatomically correct, Dr. Stebbins notes that the artist’s hummingbird pictures “increasingly dismayed ornithologists, who pointed out that the birds are not only difficult to see (being almost always in motion, with a wingbeat of up to 200 per second), but that the male and female are almost never found together, particularly at the nest. Nevertheless, Heade’s scenes communicate a sense of domestic felicity and quiet” (The Life and Work of Martin Johnson Heade: A Critical Analysis and Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven, Connecticut, 2000, p. 303).