Martin Johnson Heade's body of work is characterized by exceptionally unique artistic achievements from Victorian floral still lifes to tropical salt marshes and intoxicating examinations of orchids and hummingbirds. Above these accomplishments, his series of magnolia flowers stands out as the culminating triumph of his career. These works count among some of the most original and beguiling achievements of American still life.
After traveling far and wide throughout his career, Heade settled in St. Augustine, Florida by 1884. He continued painting landscapes, delighting in the scenery that the nearby salt marshes had to offer. However, Heade's passion for still life prevailed, and he began what has become known as his most imaginative and accomplished series of floral still lifes. Dr. Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr. has noted that "The climax of his late work is surely the paintings of reclining magnolias, which burst with passion at the same time being languid and calm; they seem to be perfectly conceived, unhesitating, intuitive--the product of a lifetime of art. They are not only unique in American painting--relating as they do to nothing before them and little afterward--but they also fail to bring to bring to mind earlier prints or paintings of Europe, the Orient, or elsewhere." (T.E. Stebbins, Jr., The Life and Works of Martin Johnson Heade, New Haven, Connecticut, 1975, p. 166)
Instead of concentrating his efforts on rendering various different flowers as he had in the past, Heade chose a single specimen, and rendered its intricacies and attributes with such passion and vigor that these works have taken on additional significance. It is not surprising that Heade was attracted to the artistic possibilities of the fragrant magnolia. "Heade must have seen the magnolia as soon as he arrived in Florida, for these beautiful flowering trees are common in southern coastal regions; the magnolia grandflora, for example, is known for its 'huge white flowers resembling the water lily, among the largest of any blossom,' and became an archetypal Heade subject. Indeed the magnolia paintings are the finest expression of the artist's late years: they are private statements which also tell the story of Victorian taste and ethics." (The Life and Works of Martin Johnson Heade, p. 172)
Heade has orchestrated a richly infused still life, in which the subject, the languid and suggestive magnolia, takes on distinctly human characteristics. Heade has removed his subject from the expected Victorian vase or cut-glass tumbler and lets the flowers recline, as if to take respite from the tropical surroundings of late nineteenth-century Florida. Their pristine white petals glow like the delicate skin of the Victorian lady. Their green and brown leaves are at once fuzzy and shiny, as if to tease the viewer by intimating a deeper underlying paradox. The flowers and stems themselves seem to hover mysteriously just above the sumptuous blue velvet, lending even more of an ethereal sense to these alluring works.
It is no wonder that Heade saw an artistic outlet in the magnolia blossom. The connection between flowers and women had been a convention throughout the history of art. The connection was even more explicit with Heade, because "For Heade, the flower always represented woman. While Courbet and other French painters of the period were free to paint nudes, to evoke sexuality openly in their work, the subject was unacceptable in nineteenth-century America except under carefully defined circumstances. So Heade, after his marriage, apparently found the magnolia and painted it as a woman undressed, seductive yet satisfied." (The Life and Works of Martin Johnson Heade, p. 176)
A letter from Dr. Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr. accompanies the lot.
This painting will be included in Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr.'s forthcoming revised catalogue raisonn of Heade's work.