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Cattleya Orchid with Two Brazilian Hummingbirds

Cattleya Orchid with Two Brazilian Hummingbirds
13 ¾ x 18 in. (34.9 x 45.7 cm.)
oil on panel
signed and dated 'M.J. Heade 1871' (lower right)
Painted in 1871.
Victor Spark, New York.
William Poplack, Detroit, Michigan, by 1975.
Godel & Co. Fine Art, New York.
Acquired by the late owners from the above, 1990.
(Possibly) "Art Notes," New York Evening Post, January 27, 1871.
T.E. Stebbins, Jr., The Life and Works of Martin Johnson Heade, New Haven, Connecticut, 1975, pp. 139-40, 239, no. 134, illustrated.
F. Kelly, American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, pt. I, Washington, D.C., 1996, p. 292.
T.E. Stebbins, Jr., The Life and Work of Martin Johnson Heade: A Critical Analysis and Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven, Connecticut, 2000, pp. 94, 286, 291, 308, no. 431, illustrated.
M.A. Erhardt, E. Broun, The Norma Lee and Martin Funger Art Collection, Lunenberg, Vermont, 1999, pp. 16-17, illustrated.

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Lot Essay

In 1863, celebrated artist 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. The present work, Cattleya Orchid with Two Brazilian Hummingbirds, is one of the first instances where the artist painted the two elements of orchids and hummingbirds together—a compositional pairing today considered both the highpoint of Heade's artistic achievements and an icon of American Art history.

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 birds native to Brazil: a horned sungem (Heliactin cornuta), above, and a black-eared fairy (Heliothryx aurita), below. 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.

Heade emphasizes the wondrous beauty of his hummingbird and orchid subject in Cattleya Orchid with Two Brazilian Hummingbirds through his now iconic compositional design, in which he contrasts highly detailed foreground objects with a hazy background vista. This format is also evident in two other early examples of his orchid and hummingbird imagery: Cattleya Orchid and Three Hummingbirds (1871, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) and Orchid with Two Hummingbirds (1871, Reynolda House Museum of American Art, Winston Salem, North Carolina). Heade completed all three paintings on wood panel instead of canvas, resulting in an especially lively surface, but seldom used the support again.

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 one of his best works of this type, Cattleya Orchid with Two Brazilian Hummingbirds not only demonstrates Heade’s deep knowledge gained during these travels through tropical lands, but also evokes a wonderment and awe for the natural environment and its wildlife gems.

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