Martin Johnson Heade

Portrait of Martin Johnson Heade, 2014 by Artist Bill Rangel
Martin Johnson Heade, 2014
24"W x24"H acrylic on canvas

Unlike like the Hudson River School landscape painters whom he’s sometimes associated with, Martin Johnson Heade’s landscapes are not grandiose, and incite neither nationalistic pride nor adventurous opportunity. Instead, they speak more of atmospheric condition, but ultimately they are metaphors for mortality; the majority of Heade’s pastoral scenes capture the horizon line at a breath before a complete change: dawn or sunset, or on the brink of a storm. Heade’s use of extreme lighting reminds the viewer that all is transitory, and these landscapes offer visions of stunningly hypnotic and meditative natural settings where he can rejoice in and reflect on his impermanence.

And, at a time when European artists were revolutionizing classical painting, with the influences of Impressionism spreading to America, Heade set off to Brazil to paint hummingbirds in their natural habitat. He returned with some of the most remarkable images of exotic flowers and nectar-feeding birds ever painted, pictures which are also metaphors for human sexuality. Under stormy skies, titillating mating dances ensue; the little hummingbirds represent human males, with their elongated, pointy beaks, mulling over how best to penetrate the rich, luminous folds of Cattleya orchids. Again, Heade opened a clearing where mesmerized viewers have a chance to inhabit mist-filled, verdant worlds, to wander amongst the moss-dripped trees, suggestive of humid pubes, and of our pre-human heritage.

Periodically, Heade had painted still lifes of garden flowers in water vessels, which represent life. But he moved to more complex work depicting tree flowers, most notably magnolia blossoms lying on velvet, symbolic of human life cycles. The cut stems of the blooms are visible and represent birth, the flowers shown in full bloom represent people at the pinnacle of life, and the Vulcan velvet onto which the strewn blossoms rest gives us the timeless return of the body to the earth.

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