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Fighting Hummingbirds with Pink Orchid

Fighting Hummingbirds with Pink Orchid
signed 'MJ Heade' (lower right)
oil on canvas
16 1/4 x 14 in. (40.5 x 35.3 cm.)
Painted circa 1875-90.
The artist.
Ramon Paez, New York, friend of the above.
Catalina Paez MacManus, Mountcharles, County Donegal, Ireland, daughter of the above.
Marakita MacManus & Patricia MacManus, daughters of the above.
Coe Kerr Gallery, New York.
Kennedy Galleries Inc., New York.
Private collection, Amarillo, Texas, acquired from the above.
Christie's, New York, 28 May 1992, lot 51, sold by the above.
Vose Galleries, Boston, Massachusetts, acquired from the above.
Acquired by the present owner from the above.
T.E. Stebbins, Jr., The Life and Work of Martin Johnson Heade: A Critical Analysis and Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven, Connecticut, 2000, p. 325, no. 500, illustrated.
Boston, Massachusetts, Museum of Fine Arts; Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art; Los Angeles, California, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Martin Johnson Heade, September 29, 1999-August 17, 2000, pp. 110, 116, 193, no. 59, illustrated.

Brought to you by

Tylee Abbott
Tylee Abbott Vice President, Head of American Art

Lot Essay

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. It was not until his return from Jamaica that Heade considered also focusing on the flowers that he witnessed on these travels. Heade first combined the two elements of orchids and hummingbirds in 1871. The resultant works, including Fighting Hummingbirds with Pink Orchids, have since been considered the highpoint of Heade's artistic achievements.

Heade's early attraction to the mystical hummingbird had astounding ramifications for his artistic career, and he diligently studied the various species in order to perfectly capture their miniature magnificence. In the present composition, the artist painstakingly represents the unique coloring and features of a pair of dueling male birds: a horned sungem (Trochilus Cornutus), below, and a rufous-crested coquette (Lophornis Delattrei), above. However, unlike his more scientifically oriented predecessors Audubon and Gould, here Heade combines a Darwinian attention to accurately cataloguing the natural world with a Victorian emphasis on evoking the latent, transcendent power of nature.

Fighting Hummingbirds with Pink Orchid epitomizes Heade’s iconic compositional style for his hummingbird and orchid subject, in which he contrasts highly detailed foreground objects with a hazy background vista. This format is also evident in works such as Cattleya Orchid and Three Hummingbirds (1871, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.) and Orchid with an Amethyst Hummingbird (circa 1875-1890, Cummer Museum of Art, Jacksonville, Florida). Heade scholar Theodore Stebbins writes, "Heade painted orchid and hummingbird compositions regularly throughout the 1870s and 1880s and more sporadically during the 1890s up to the year of his death. Most of the later pictures depict a single pink blossom of the Cattleya labiata with one or two hummingbirds, seen amid tropical mountains. These pictures are infused with warmth and sensuality; they are as much about color and atmosphere as about natural history." (The Life and Work of Martin Johnson Heade: A Critical Analysis and Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven, Connecticut, 2000, p. 103) In the present example, the pale pink and rose of the fragile flower at right and the deep blue of the hummingbird’s head, combined with the rich greens of the forest and the misty gray skies in the distance, create a palpable sense of the vibrancy and fecundity of nature.

Heade's renderings of plant and animal life reflect the public's parallel interests in science and in South American exploration that were emerging in the United States during the second half of the nineteenth century. As in his best works of this type, Fighting Hummingbirds with Pink Orchids not only demonstrates Heade’s deep knowledge gained during these travels through tropical lands, but also evokes a wonderment and awe for the tropical environment and its wildlife gems.

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