Heade was the only major American artist of the 19th century to make important contributions in landscape, marine, and still life painting. Virtually all of his still lifes were floral pieces, starting with simple pictures of flowers in vases in the early 1860s and culminating with a splendid series of roses, magnolias, and other flowers spread out on tables covered with velvet cloths. This painting, a prime and much – admired example from the latter series, is considered one of the finest still lifes of Heade's entire career. 
In 1883, after a lifetime of restless, uneasy personal relationships, and only modest critical and popular success as an artist in the northeast, Heade married for the first time and settled permanently in Saint Augustine, Florida. There he found his first and only important patron, the oil and railroad magnate Henry Morrison Flagler, who would purchase the artist's works regularly during the 1880s and 1890s. At the age of 64 Heade had at last found personal and professional stability, and the renewed energy and interest in painting evident in his late still lifes, especially the magnolias, may have been inspired by these new circumstances.  Certainly works such as Giant Magnolias on a Blue Velvet Cloth, with their striking contrasts of brilliantly lit flowers and leaves set against a dark background, are among the most original still lifes of the 19th century. They are also for many observers strongly sensual, their lush colors, full, curving contours, overall sense of opulence, and implied perfumed scent of the flowers suggestive, perhaps, of female nudes languidly reclining on luxurious couches. 
(Text by Franklin Kelly, published in the National Gallery of Art exhibition catalogue, Art for the Nation, 2000)
More information on this painting can be found in the Gallery publication American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part I, pages 295-298, which is available as a free PDF at https://www.nga.gov/content/dam/ngaweb/research/publications/pdfs/american-paintings-19th-century-part-1.pdf
Notes1. The inclusion of Giant Magnolias as one of five paintings by Heade in the exhibition A New World: Masterpieces of American Painting, 1760 – 1910, shown in Boston, Washington, and Paris in 1983 – 1984, is evidence of the high place it is accorded in Heade's oeuvre.
2. A New World: Masterpieces of American Painting, 1760 – 1910 [exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts] (Boston, 1983), 282.
3. Boston 1983, 282.
lower right: MJ. Heade
(Victor D. Spark, New York), 1962-c. 1965; Dr. and Mrs. Samuel Finkelstein, New York, c. 1965-1995; by descent to private collection; consigned 1995 to (Hirschl and Adler Galleries, New York); sold 6 February 1996 to NGA.
- American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, 1964, no. 45, as Giant Magnolias.
- The American Vision: Paintings 1825-1875, M. Knoedler and Co., Inc., New York, 1968, no. 43.
- Martin Johnson Heade, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; University of Maryland Art Gallery, College Park; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1969, no. 52.
- The Natural Paradise: Painting in America, 1800-1950, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1976, repro. 140.
- A New World: Masterpieces of American Painting, 1760-1910, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Grand Palais, Paris, 1983-1984, no. 68.
- Martin Johnson Heade, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1999-2000, no. 71, repro.
- Art for the Nation: Collecting for a New Century, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2000-2001, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
The painting is executed on a fine, light weight, plain-weave fabric support that has been lined. The original tacking margins have been removed and the stretcher is not original. An off-white ground layer was applied overall. The major outlines of the flowers were drawn probably in graphite. The white blossoms were painted first, primarily wet-into-wet, with little glazing. The leaves and stem were painted next; first the primary modeling was blended wet-into-wet, building paint from dark to light. The deepest shadows were then painted in heavy transparent glazes. The background was painted last, directly on top of the ground in a series of glazes. Highlights were added on top of the middle tones created in the initial stages of painting the velvet; these were glazed and reduced in tone as the painting process progressed. The paint layer is generally in very good condition, with a fine crackle throughout, a few widely scattered small losses, and a small amount of abrasion in the shadows of the closed magnolia bud. There is a small tear in the upper left corner that has been repaired. The thin, matte varnish covers an unevenly removed older varnish layer.
- Stebbins, Theodore E., Jr. The Life and Works of Martin Johnson Heade. New Haven and London, 1975: 174-176, 276, no. 328.
- 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: 295-298, color 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. 71.
- Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 313, no. 254, color repro.