By Kate Menconeri & Julia B. Rosenbaum
Hummingbirds are a species found only in the Americas…
… and the artist Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904) traveled to Brazil in 1863 so that he could see the diversity of the species and paint them in their natural habitats. A self-declared monomaniac for these birds, he wrote, “There is probably no country where a person interested in ornithology, entomology, botany, mineralogy, or beautiful scenery could find so much to keep him entertained.” The artist’s notebooks from the time include careful observations about their coloration, nesting habits, and interactions with flowers and insects. He was fascinated by these pollinators and would go on to create a series of over 40 paintings known as “The Gems of Brazil.” Named for the hummingbirds’ iridescent colors and individually titled for their common name, such as “Amethyst Woodstar” and “Ruby-Topaz,” the series offers a portrait of the hummingbird family (Trochilidae) and its diversity and life cycles from the unique perspective of an artist.
Heade’s unusual up-close portrait style with distanced landscape featured in “The Gems of Brazil” works, stands in contrast to the large sweeping landscapes that were being painted by many of Heade’s Tenth Street Studio friends, including the celebrated landscapist Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900). They are also unlike scientific illustrations that were being made in his time by 19th-century naturalists. Heade was instead making a different kind of landscape that magnified intricate details within nature itself. His efforts resonate with ideas about the natural world that were circulating in mid-19th century Euro-American scientific circles, specifically the influential work of Alexander von Humboldt and Charles Darwin, and relates to the newly coined term ecology—defined at the time as the “science of the relationships of an organism with its environment.” Simultaneously, Heade’s works convey the artist’s creative imagination and his sense of wonder. He wrote about these tiny birds with a spiritual reverence: “For one who is in the least degree attuned to poetic feelings, they have a singularly fascinating power, which the subtlest mind is unable to explain, but which all who have studied them must acknowledge to have felt.” Rather than presenting art and science as distinct or separate, Heade’s efforts with “The Gems of Brazil” suggest their interplay.
The exhibition “Cross Pollination: Heade, Cole, Church and Our Contemporary Moment” takes flight from this unprecedented series and expands outward to explore pollination in nature and ecology, as well as pollination as a metaphor for the interplay between art and science, the relationships among artists, and the connections across centuries, from the nineteenth to the twenty-first. The exhibition itself was developed collaboratively by the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, The Olana Partnership at the Olana State Historic Site, and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and draws from core work in each of their collections. Sixteen of Heade’s paintings from “The Gems of Brazil”currently in the collection of Crystal Bridges Museum are presented in conversation not only with works by fellow artists Thomas Cole and Frederic Church but also with artwork by their daughters, Emily Cole and Isabel Charlotte Church, as well as by major artists working today. This resonant combination of material highlights the relevance, both past and present, of close observations of nature and the critical interconnections between pollinators and their habitats.
Martin Johnson Heade and Frederic Church both worked in New York’s Tenth Street Studio Building and became lifelong friends. Church, widely considered to be one of the most important American painters, began his career in Catskill, New York, where he studied from 1844 to 1846 with Thomas Cole, the painter credited for sparking a new American landscape movement. Along with Heade, Cole and Church shared a deep commitment to careful observation, which informed their finished paintings. Interest in the natural world extended to both Cole’s and Church’s daughters, Emily Cole and Isabel Charlotte Church, known as “Downie.” Both sketched and painted botanical works of flora native to their upstate New York homes. While Thomas Cole and Martin Johnson Heade never knew each other personally, both painters wrote prose and advocated for preservation of, and balance within, the natural environment.
Their call for early ecological awareness and action reverberates among many contemporary artists, including those featured in the installation at the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens: Juan Fontanive, Jeffrey Gibson, Paula Hayes, Patrick Jacobs, Maya Lin, Flora C. Mace, Vik Muniz, Lisa Sanditz, Roxy Paine, Rachel Sussman, and Jeff Whetstone. Like their 19th-century counterparts, they engage multiple disciplines and media, drawing on scientific studies, their own close observations of nature, and their imaginations.