Martin Johnson Heade

Martin Johnson Heade

Martin Johnson Heade (1819–1904) is best known for his enchanting and intriguing paintings of seascapes, marsh lands, tropical landscapes, birds, and botanicals. Heade stands out as a highly inventive and prolific artist who crossed artistic boundaries, borrowing from existing styles and conventions to create a highly personal and varied oeuvre. Heade enjoyed one of the longest careers of any nineteenth-century American painter, and is acclaimed for his mastery of multiple genres of painting.

Born in Lumberville, Pennsylvania to a farmer and lumber dealer, the artist studied under the folk painter Edward Hicks (1780–1849). Heade was a consummate traveler, making his first trip to Europe in 1838 and settling in Rome for two years. After a second visit to Europe in 1848, he became an itinerant painter. Around 1857, Heade began seriously pursuing landscape painting, and consequently became associated with John Frederick Kensett and Benjamin Champney while in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Heade painted over one hundred views of the salt marshes along the East Coast, favoring expansive horizontal vistas, punctuated by diminutive figures or haystacks, and emphasizing the play of sunlight and shadow on the landscape features. Heade then moved to New York City in 1859, establishing a studio in the Tenth Street Studio Building. There, he worked alongside artists such as Albert Bierstadt and Sanford Robinson Gifford, and struck up a close friendship with Frederic Edwin Church.

Like Church, Heade traveled to the tropics to record its unique geography, flora, and fauna. During his first South American trip, which lasted from 1863 to 1864, he traveled to Brazil with the amateur naturalist Reverend J.C. Fletcher, producing his celebrated series of hummingbirds. This series of small, vertical 10 by 12 inch paintings were probably originally intended to be published in an illustrated book entitled The Gems of Brazil. This publication, however, was never realized due to financial constraints and difficulties in mechanically reproducing the plates. In this series, tiny, iridescent hummingbirds, or “gems,” cavort alone or in pairs in tropical habitats. The birds are often shown beside lushly growing orchids or passion flowers which echo the birds in color or shape. While Heade borrowed from the conventions of naturalist illustrations such as ornithological studies, the artist merged these elements with those of Romantic animal and landscape painting. Heade became increasingly inventive, experimenting with composition and perspective. In most of these works, the birds and flowers are pushed to the extreme foreground, against a tropical landscape looming in the distant background. Heade notably played with scale, emphasizing the wonder of the world’s smallest birds. The flowers, themselves small and fragile, appear improbably large and solid compared to the delicate and flitting hummingbirds. In 1866, Heade took up his travels once more by visiting Nicaragua, followed by Colombia, Panama, and Jamaica in 1870. These trips provided fodder for his tropical landscape paintings for the rest of his career.

In 1883, Heade moved to Saint Augustine, Florida, and began painting the surrounding marshland. Heade’s final project was a series of evocative floral still life paintings featuring opulent blooms, notably white magnolias and Cherokee roses, against richly-colored velvet backdrops. While Heade was not famous during his lifetime, he is now acknowledged by art historians as one of the most original and productive American artists of the nineteenth century. His works are represented in several major museums, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C, and the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, Spain.

Martin Johnson Heade (1819–1904)
Passion Flowers and Hummingbirds, ca. 1870–83
Oil on canvas, 15½ x 21⅝ inches
Collection Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA, Gift of Maxim Karolik for the M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Paintings, 1815–1865, 47.1138