Lifelong love of wings and petals

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The pink orchid, glowing in the first light that penetrates the morning mists of the tropical rain forest, looks very much like the star of this painting. Yet it was the hummingbirds that drew Martin Johnson Heade to Brazil. Making the arduous journey from Massachusetts, he became, in the year 1863, the first American artist to venture to South America to paint and study its hummingbirds from personal observation.

Heade's flowers, painted with equal parts of botanical correctness and poetic artistry, were already popular with collectors and outpriced his hauntingly lovely, unostentatious landscapes. But he hoped that a series on Brazilian hummingbirds would, when reproduced as chromolithographs, bring him universal fame as an artist and recognition as a serious naturalist. His interest in the tiny jewel-feathered birds was not motivated solely by hope of fame or fortune, however, for, as he wrote, ''A few years after my first appearance in this breathing world I was attacked by the all-absorbing hummingbird craze, and it has never left me since.''

While the ruby-throat is the only species of hummers in the Eastern United States, Brazil has a fair share of the more than seven hundred species in the world. There, Heade painted at least twenty varieties. This particular pair is in delicate shadow, their green iridescence subdued by the tropical shade. The male on the right flashes a bit of red in his feathery whiskers. Their cup-shaped nest is almost hidden in the gloom on the left of the luminous flower. The accuracy of his rendering of the birds, to which he adds an artist's feeling for their weightlessness and tension, was approved by no less a naturalist than Louis Agassiz. The project also had the patronage of the very learned and cultivated Emperor Dom Pedro II of Brazil. But, alas, Heade's impatient, perfectionist temperament abandoned the series when he became dissatisfied with some of the reproductions. All the paintings were immediately disposed of to an English industrialist.

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This fiasco did not, however, diminish the artist's love for the hummingbirds. He settled down ultimately in Florida, where, in his profuse garden, he tamed and hand-fed ''the little gluttons'' on sugar water each day. Although he seems to have painted no other birds than his ''special pets,'' he was an early advocate of bird sanctuaries. He never killed his feathered models, as Audubon did in the interest of anatomical detail. Heade also felt strongly that wilderness areas, such as New York's Adirondack Mountains, should be for public enjoyment and should not be allowed to be closed in as game preserves for ''a few millionaires.'' Writing passionately in the magazine Forest and Streamm, under the pen name Didymus (''Doubting'' Thomas), his voice was undoubtedly one of those that helped influence the public-spirited men who persuaded the New York Legislature to establish the Adirondack State Forest Preserve to be ''forever wild.''

The great loves in the life of Martin Johnson Heade, hummingbirds, flowers, wilderness travel - and painting - were all manifested before he was twenty. He pursued all of them throughout a long life with great intensity of purpose, integrity and independence, keeping himself free of all categories.

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