National Gallery of Art - EXHIBITIONS

Martin Johnson Heade

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Introduction | Seashore Views and Marshes | Early Still Lifes | Hummingbirds | Florida | Images

Hummingbirds

Heade described himself as a "monomaniac" on the subject of hummingbirds, which, with their iridescent feathers, have been referred to as "jewels" or "gems." He painted a series of approximately forty-five small paintings, ten-by-twelve-inch vertical compositions depicting the male and female of various species, often near their nest, with a landscape background. In Rio de Janeiro in 1864 Heade exhibited twelve of his small hummingbird paintings, The Gems of Brazil (c. 1864), and was honored by the emperor, Dom Pedro II. He later traveled to London to have his paintings chromolithographed for a book on the hummingbirds of Brazil, but the project was never completed. Nevertheless, Heade enjoyed enthusiastic patronage on both sides of the Atlantic.

Another "new line," begun in 1870, was a series of paintings pairing hummingbirds with exotic passionflowers or orchids. These astonishing works, which combine traditional landscape elements with ornithological and botanical illustration, have no precedents within either American or European art. Heade often plays with matching similarities of gesture or form between the exotic birds and flowers. In An Amethyst Hummingbird with a White Orchid (c. 1875-1890), the hummingbird's iridescent ruby throat resembles in color and shape the throat of the orchid, Lealia purpurata. The cleft shape of the bird's tail is echoed in the fall of the orchid's petals and by the olive-green sepals encasing the bud.

In 1883, at the age of 64, Heade finally settled in St. Augustine, Florida, and married. Two-thirds of the paintings he made between 1883 and his death in 1904 are still lifes, the other third comprises landscapes and two portraits.

Introduction | Seashore Views and Marshes | Early Still Lifes | Hummingbirds | Florida | Images