In 1884 Martin Johnson Heade moved from New York City to St. Augustine, Florida where he began painting the nearby Florida marshes and at the same time focused his attention on creating a series of extraordinary floral still lifes. Among these paintings is Magnolia Blossoms on Blue Velvet, executed around 1890, which includes the sensuous magnolia blossoms native to the area. When Heade arrived in Florida he must have been attracted immediately to the magnolia's magnificent, sumptuous blossoms. Heade's earliest still lifes that included magnolia blossoms were vertical compositions that depicted one or two closed buds in a vase. However the artist soon took advantage of the richness of the subject and began painting more complex compositions with multiple, open blossoms and leaves, such as Magnolia Blossoms on Blue Velvet.
Heade painted no less than six still lifes of magnolia blossoms on blue velvet. Like the greatest examples of his magnolia still lifes, Magnolia Blossoms on Blue Velvet meaures 15 x 24 inches. While none of the works is dated, it seems Heade explored this theme over the course of the decade following his move to Florida. When Heade died in 1904 the writer of his obituary noted that the artist had painted "the Florida magnolia and the Cherokee rose with a vraisemblance so perfect as sometimes to be astonishing in the illusion."
T.E. Stebbins has described this mature series of still lifes, writing, "flower and color are unified and abstracted in their own world; the blossom itself is perfect, resting on the velvet without seeming to touch it, and not a petal or leaf is bent. While the core of the flower is lit, and the leaves have shiny highlights, the illumination comes from the object itself, not from an outside source. There is no sign of brushwork here, not the slightest indication of an artist laboring; for Heade, as he had done only a few times before, notably in the great marine views of the sixties, managed to create a pure, emotional image which seems divorced from any consideration of man or the making of art." (The Life and Works of Martin Johnson Heade, New Haven, Connecticut, 1975, p. 174)
While Heade painted several still lifes of magnolia blossoms on red velvet, he seems to have used blue velvet for his most resplendent examples. Stebbins continues, "This series culminates in several paintings in which Heade uses blue velvet for the first time. . . [These] paintings are examples of the artist's most perfect control, creating a balance between simplicity and sumptuousness. The viewer's eye moves easily from a closed bud, to a half-open blossom, to the fully mature flower." (Heade, p. 175-6)
In all of the compositions that include magnolias, Heade painted the textures and surfaces of the blossoms, leaves and velvet with extraordinary care. W.H. Gerdts has noted, "Heade came to understand the magnolia--its form, its texture, its intrinsic life force--as well as he had the orchid, fully realizing the thick, fleshy white petals in contrast to the deep, green, waxy leaves. The contrast of these textures with the luxuriant pile of the velvet creates a tactile sensuousness that several scholars have identified with the female nude. John I.H. Baur's description of 'the fleshy whiteness of magnolia blossoms startlingly arrayed on sumptuous red velvet like odalisques on a couch' deftly suggests the erotic and exotic parallel." (Painters of the Humble Truth, Columbia, Missouri, 1981, p. 130) That Heade never seems to have publicly exhibited any of his still lifes of magnolia blossoms suggests that they had special, personal meaning for him.
This painting will be included in Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr.'s forthcoming supplement to the catalogue raisonné of the artist's work.