Sunday, 3 June 2012


“Joy in looking and comprehending is nature's most beautiful gift.” - Albert Einstein
A relatively little-known artist for Art Sunday today, who during his life did not command much attention, also. Martin Johnson Heade (August 11, 1819 – September 4, 1904) was a prolific American painter known for his salt marsh landscapes, seascapes, and depictions of tropical birds (such as hummingbirds), as well as tropical flowers and other still lives. His painting style and subject matter, while derived from the romanticism of the time, are regarded by art historians as a significant departure from those of his peers.

Heade was born in Lumberville, Pennsylvania, the son of a shopkeeper. He studied with Edward Hicks, and possibly with Thomas Hicks. His earliest works were produced during the 1840s and were chiefly portraits. He travelled to Europe several times as a young man, became an itinerant artist on American shores, and exhibited in Philadelphia in 1841 and New York in 1843. Friendships with artists of the Hudson River School led to an interest in landscape art. In 1863, he planned to publish a volume of Brazilian hummingbirds and tropical flowers, but the project was eventually abandoned. He travelled to the tropics several times thereafter, and continued to paint birds and flowers.

Heade married in 1883 and moved to St. Augustine, Florida. His chief works from this period were Floridian landscapes and flowers, particularly magnolias laid upon velvet cloth. He died in 1904. His best known works are depictions of light and shadow upon the salt marshes of New England. Heade was not a widely known artist during his lifetime, but his work attracted the notice of scholars, art historians, and collectors during the 1940s. He thereafter became recognised as a major American artist. Although often considered a Hudson River School artist, some critics and scholars take exception to this categorisation. Heade’s works are now in major museums and collections. His paintings are occasionally discovered in unlikely places such as garage sales and flea markets.

I like his botanical paintings quite a lot as they remind me of a natural history textbook that we used in primary school. There is a strong feel of erudite and nostalgic 19th century naturalism in these paintings and part of their appeal is that while they are botanically accurate, they are also beautifully artistic and highly decorative. The “Orchid and Hummingbird near a Mountain Waterfall” of 1902 shown here is characteristic of Heade’s work in the natural history genre, but the other major part of his work, landscape, is also hinted at by the broad vista behind the main subject.

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