Orchids and Hummingbird, c.1875-1883
Oil on canvas, 14 1/8 x 22 1/8 inches (35.97 x 56.29 cm)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Heade decided to combine his interest in hummingbirds with his love of orchids (an interest that he shared with many other prominent Americans, whose orchidaria proliferated in mid-century and after). In 1871, he exhibited the first of a series of hummingbird and orchid paintings that he would continue developing until the end of his life. Orchid and Two Hummingbirds dates from early in this series. Like many of Heade~dq~s other orchid and hummingbird paintings, it combines a single flower with a pair of hummingbirds. As much as any painting in the series this painting- Orchids and Hummingbird encloses its subject in the riotous vegetation and pervasive moisture of the tropical landscape. Buds, vines, roots and leaves crowd the painting~dq~s margins, almost growing past the framing edges to trompe l~dq~oeil effect, so that the viewer feels "as if the painter had climbed into the trees to witness a scene both intimate and grand, one that is highly charged with...great sensual and emotional power."1 Much has been made of the implicit sexuality of Heade~dq~s orchid and hummingbird paintings, yet, aside from their curvilinear parallels to human equivalents and their obvious reference to ongoing processes of fertilization and procreation, Heade~dq~s paintings are instead close observations of natural forms, and thus fall within a long American tradition of realistic naturalism. Their mystery derives from the exoticism of their subjects, and their veiled hints of romantic escape to an alien, and therefore challenging, tropical environment, much like the one to which Gauguin would later lead us. It should be noted that the orchid in the painting is a Cattleya labiata, Heade~dq~s favorite orchid, which was named after William Cattley, the Englishman who first successfully hybridized orchids in 1818. The hummingbirds are, above, a horned sun gem (Heliactin cornuta), one of the rarest and most elusive of all Brazilian hummingbirds, and, below, a black-eared fairy (Heliothryx aurita).