In 1863, celebrated landscape and still-life painter Martin Johnson Heade traveled to South America, following in the footsteps of fellow painter Frederic Edwin Church and inspired by the successful publications of artist-ornithologists John James Audubon and John Gould. At the time, an article in the Boston Transcript declared, “It is his intention in Brazil to depict the richest and most brilliant of the hummingbird family--about which he is so great an enthusiast--…He is only fulfilling the dream of his boyhood in doing so.” (as quoted in J.L. Comey, “The Gems of Brazil,” Martin Johnson Heade, Boston, Massachusetts, 1999, p. 71) Indeed, Heade was fascinated with tropical flora and fauna, studying and painting hummingbirds in Brazil between 1863 and 1865 and making subsequent trips to Nicaragua in 1866 and Colombia, Panama and Jamaica in 1870. As in his best works resulting from these explorations, Nesting Hummingbirds, Brazilian Landscape not only demonstrates Heade’s deep knowledge gained during these travels through tropical lands, but also evokes the artist’s life-long wonderment and awe for the mysterious, teeming jungles of South America and their wildlife gems.
Heade's early attraction to the mystical hummingbird had astounding ramifications for his artistic career, and he diligently studied the species in order to perfectly capture its miniature magnificence. "Somehow the beauty and lightening speed of this tiny, brilliant flower of the air so impressed him, as later to create within him the strongest urge to investigate its habits, and perpetuate on canvas its fleeting beauty, and exquisite iridescence." (R.C. McIntyre, Martin Johnson Heade, New York, 1948, p. 12) In Nesting Hummingbirds, Brazilian Landscape, the artist painstakingly represents the unique coloring and features of a pair of crimson topaz (Topaza pella), which are the largest species of hummingbird native to Brazil. The male resting on the higher branch is recognizable from the pair of longer tail feathers dangling below his perch, and the bird's striking hot pink feathers and acid yellow-green throat dazzle amidst the gray-green landscape. Janet L. Comey explains of the artist’s technical efforts toward accuracy, “Heade took particular care in portraying the iridescent quality of hummingbirds’ plumage. He applied paint in many layers, and to convey the shimmering quality of the feathers on the throat, cap, or breast, he used a thin glaze of natural rose madder, a red dye derived from the madder root, over a white, reflective, textured underlayer.” (J.L. Comey, “The Gems of Brazil,” Martin Johnson Heade, Boston, Massachusetts, 1999, p. 74)
Heade’s paintings of hummingbirds are so extraordinary because they are not in actuality completely accurate recordings of nature; rather, they are articulate combinations of scientific detail and artistic license that uniquely capture the natural beauty of these distant lands. Accordingly, here Heade has picturesquely placed his two hummingbird subjects, with the female tending the nest while its mate looks out and guards from upon the branch directly above. These charming postures make for a beautiful and sentimental composition, but Heade scholar Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr. explains that this unlikely posing "increasingly dismayed ornithologists, who pointed out that birds are not only difficult to see (being almost always in motion, with a wingbeat of up to 200 per second), but that male and female are almost never found together, particularly around the nest. Nevertheless, Heade's scenes communicate a sense of domestic felicity and quiet.” (The Life and Works of Martin Johnson Heade, New Haven, Connecticut, pp. 133-34) In Nesting Hummingbirds, Brazilian Landscape, the artist emphasizes the foreground scene, framing the niche using tree branches as repoussoir devices and contrasting the bright colors of the birds and red-spotted leaves in the foreground with the hazy purple hues of the background mountain vista; the rich greens of the forest and the misty gray atmospheric perspective create a sense of the vibrancy and fecundity of the natural environment.
Unlike his more scientifically oriented predecessors Audubon and Gould, in works such as Nesting Hummingbirds, Brazilian Landscape, Heade captures both the nineteenth-century, Darwinian fascination with cataloguing the natural world as well as the Victorian awareness of the latent, transcendent power of nature. “In all of the work of his artistic maturity, Heade was a romantic masquerading as a realist. He studied the hummingbirds, the orchids, and the passionflowers with the eye of a naturalist, just as he sketched the landscapes of the Northeast, Florida and Brazil using the methods of the topographical painter. Yet in each genre, the paintings have more to do with memory than with fact; they speak less to keenness of observation than to the richness of the painter’s imagination.” (T.E. Stebbins, Jr., Martin Johnson Heade, Boston, Massachusetts, 1999, p. 9)