Heade offered viewers an intimate glimpse into the exotic recesses of nature's secret garden. Lichen covers dead branches; moss drips from trees; and, a blue-gray mist veils the distant jungle. An opulent pink orchid with light-green stems and pods dominates the left foreground. To the right, perched near a nest on a branch, are a Sappho Comet, green with a yellow throat and brilliant red tail feathers, and two green-and-pink Brazilian Amethysts.
Perhaps inspired by the writings of Charles Darwin, the artist studied these subjects in the wild during several expeditions to South America. The precisely rendered flora and fauna seem alive in their natural habitat, not mere specimens for scientific analysis. Defying strict categorization as either still life or landscape, Heade's work reflects the artist's unerring attention to detail and his delight in the infinitesimal joys of nature.
lower right: M. J. Heade / 1871
Private collection; (sale, Adam A. Weschler & Son, Washington, D.C., 21-23 May 1982, 3rd day, no. 1316); (Hirschl & Adler Galleries, New York); purchased 14 October 1982 by NGA.
- Martin Johnson Heade, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1999-2000, no. 57, repro.
- Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science, and the Visual Arts, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven; The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, 2009, no. 185, fig. 262.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 549, no. 833, color repro.
- Wilmerding, John. American Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art. Rev. ed. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1988: 13-14, repro.
- American Paintings from the Manoogian Collection. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Detroit Institute of Arts. Washington, D.C., 1989:
- Manthorne, Katherine Emma. Tropical Renaissance: North American Artists Exploring Latin America, 1839-1879. Washington, D.C., and London, 1989: 118, 120, fig. 61.
- American Originals: Selections from Reynolda House Museum of American Art. Exh. cat. American Federation of Arts, New York, 1990: 68.
- Kopper, Philip. America's National Gallery of Art: A Gift to the Nation. New York, 1991: 292, color repro.
- American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 197, repro.
- National Gallery of Art, Washington. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 240, repro.
- Kelly, Franklin, with Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr., Deborah Chotner, and John Davis. American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part I. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1996: 291-295, color repro.
- Kratz, Otto. Alexander von Humboldt: Wissenschaftler - Weltbürger - Revolutionär, Munich, 1997: 166-167, repro.
- Martin Johnson Heade. Exh. cat. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; National Gallery of Art, Washington; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1999-2000: no. 57.
- Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 313, no. 253, color repro.
The support is a Winsor and Newton prepared mahogany panel, 1.2 cm thick and with horizontal grain, trimmed on the right edge before painting. The orchid is thinly painted, allowing the off-white ground to show through. The paint was applied wet-into-wet with small brushes. There are some areas of impasto, especially in the whites. The sky has a fine crackle pattern that does not continue into the foreground. Generally, the paint is in excellent condition, with only a few small losses and minimal abrasion. The varnish has not discolored.