MARTIN JOHNSON HEADE (1819-1904) was a great American artist, though he received little recognition in his own lifetime or since. There seems no sufficient reason for this neglect - he had a good artistic education and training, traveled widely, and gave his whole life to his art. He seems to have had a rather eccentric personality, but he had a wide view, seizing upon many themes for his work. Born in Lumberville, Pennsylvania, some 40 miles from Philadelphia, Heade was a member of a large family of a farmer, who was also a gunsmith and evidently a man of energy and good sense. When this son announced, as a child, that he wanted to be a painter, his father encouraged him. He sent the boy to study with Edward Hicks, also the son of a Pennsylvania farmer, who taught him according to the ideas of the period. Before he was 20, Heade went to Rome for two years to study, and from there traveled to France and England.
Many American artists who went to Europe at that time were astonished, on their return, to see (or imagine they saw) an intensity in the quality of light on this continent. The wonderful luminous glow of the atmosphere, especially on landscape, inspired them to paint this marvelous element, and Heade was perhaps preeminent in this field. Heade is considered one of the Hudson River School, but seems to have had little in common with the proponents of that school - he was a solitary artist.
Heade's most unique work was his portrayal of hummingbirds. He said that since boyhood ``I have been almost a monomaniac on hummingbirds,'' a feeling he entertained all his life, until he became perhaps the best exponent of their brilliant shimmering grace that the world has ever known.
There are over 1,500 species of this bird, and at that time other naturalists were interested in depicting them, and two of these men achieved far more fame than Heade ever enjoyed. In America there was John James Audubon, and in England, John Gould (who never even saw a live hummingbird, though he could indeed paint them well).
Heade made three journeys to South America, and had some correspondence with William Merritt Chase on the subject. (Chase also went there.) He was enraptured with the beauty of the Central and South American jungles, their lush luxuriant foliage and flowers - particularly the orchids, and above all with the hummingbirds he watched.
It was in Brazil that he did this series, wonderful renditions of these scintillating little creatures with their iridescent coloring, their brilliant feathers, and their incessant motion. Unlike the other two artists, he put in realistic and suitable backgrounds for his birds, showing their habitat.
He had intended to do a series of 20 birds, four on each of five panels, calling them the ``Gems of Brazil,'' but only 16 have survived with certainty. His ambitious hopes that these might at last establish his reputation fell through, masterpieces though they are. They were done with the most perfect exactitude, and their names are listed, romantic names like Amethyst Woodstar, Tufted Coquette, Black-Eared Fairy, and Black-Throated Mango.
He also had a great love for gardenias and orchids. Like most of his contemporaries he did many floral studies, but came to excel in painting these two luxuriant southern flowers. His gardenias are curved beauties, sometimes resting on blue velvet to enhance their own glossy leaves - one feels they must be heavy with scent. Orchids were even more his special favorites and he did a great many pictures of them.
In that century many artists and writers were religious men, and, awed by the wonders and beauty of the natural world, attributed these qualities to a divine source, deeply sensitive to the idea of a benevolent unseen power. Heade was no exception to this, though not formally pious, he also was aware of the unseen.
His full recognition is yet to come.