Last month, while attending an orchid meeting, I was fortunate to win a raffle price of fancy note cards depicting cattleyas in old time jungle scenes. The images were familiar as they are regularly found in art museums and botanical gift shops but the artist is largely unknown. The material dates back 150 years and was avante guard in its day.
Martin Johnson Heade was not famous during his lifetime (1819 – 1904) but was ‘rediscovered’ in the mid 20th century. His early work was landscapes in New England but, after he traveled to South America in the 1860’s, his subjects changed to plants and birds of the Amazon. From a single oil sketch in Brazil, Heade returned home and made dozens of paintings showing orchids and hummingbirds in dense cloud forests.
In order to capture the intricate detail of each orchid, Heade visited private collections and commercial nurseries in the Northeast. “I’ve painted nothing but orchids this summer and Summit (New Jersey) is the best place in the country for that”, he wrote to a friend. Summit is the town where famed grower Frederick Sander, of Britain, had a range of greenhouses.
A typical Heade painting features the lavender form of Cattleya labiata in amazing detail. This Brazilian species is shown at the peak of freshness and without a single blemish. The flowers are unusually large and are cast in a light that reveals the delicate feathering and ruffled edges of the petals.
Right behind them, are puffy buds waiting to open. They seem to have motion because there is visible color between the cracks. Heade’s illusion is aided by his use of artistic liberty in the exaggerated foot-long curvy flower stems that resemble a serpent about to strike. Viewers can’t help but think that if they watch long enough, one of those buds will actually unfurl.
The cattleya foliage is just as precise as the flowers but the subjects are weathered and ratty as one would expect in the wild. The pseudo-bulbs are wrinkled and some have sunburned or missing leaves. Clearly, the plants have gone through the wet and dry seasons of the jungle and have managed to rally in time for the blooming season.
The juxtaposition of awe-inspiring and glistening blossoms emerging from half-dead plants that are shrouded in heavy fog evokes a feeling that something magical is happening. Here, in this remote part of the world, at this very moment, we are witnessing one of nature’s great secrets – the blooming of a cattleya.
For enthusiasts hoping to see Heade’s originals, they can be found at major public institutions around the country including the Museum of Fine Arts - Boston, The New York Historical Society, the National Gallery of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Cleveland Museum of Art. The titles are straightforward, “Cattleya Orchid and Three Hummingbirds” (1871), “Orchids in a Jungle” (1871-1874), and “Study of an Orchid” (1872). Reproductions are available in a wide variety of formats including my new favorite, note cards. www.martin-johnson-heade.org.