Martin Johnson Heade: The Enigmatic Self
by Barbara Novak
The originality of Heade's mature flower-painting is unmatched in 19th century art. For Heade, as Stebbins had suggested, the flower always represented woman. Heade's orchids and magnolias were painted with such passionate intensity that they certainly can be seen as a metaphorical representation of woman. Stebbins also suggests that in the hot-house sensuality of many of his floral paintings Heade's own sexual instincts may have been sublimated.
He was painting flowers at a fascinating moment in natural science. Like Darwin, he found the orchid profoundly intriguing. In engaging the flower painting tradition from the early 1860's on, starting just after the 1859 publication of Darwin's Origin of Species, Heade may have ultimately brought to the flower a doubled and contradictory awareness: of the flower as evolved through evolution, infused with organic energy and of the flower as ur-flower, as part of God's ideal design, its vitality a powerful symbol of spirit. The latter concept had not yet been displaced in his generation of fellow artists at the time of Darwin's writing. This doubled awareness converges with a visual tradition in America that concerned itself with the essential nature of things, of the world observed through a somewhat Platonic devotion to idea, visible, in Heade's case, in the conceptual aspect of his horizontal landscapes as well as in his winding Orchids and Passion Flowers.
Is there a clue to Heade, the man, if we assume that the opulent flower paintings enact a metaphorical fusion of Heade's desire and woman's body -- a fusion which, once accomplished, leaves Heade free to gracefully retreat into anonymity?  This complex voyage of the self would parallel (but not coincide with) a long American tradition, initiated by Copley masking himself behind the objects in his paintings. Heade's many roles, and the several selves constructed to enact them, may have placed him ambiguously in relation to the social duties which each entailed. But in the flower paintings we have perhaps a distant sighting of Heade's relation to matters of gender.
Gender forcefully enters the arena with the subject of flower painting. The floral tradition in America, initiated by Mark Catesby in the eighteenth century, was enriched in the nineteenth century by a popular contingent of women artists (Winslow Homer's mother among them). Flowers, in the typical sexist projections of the nineteenth century were described in floral terms. Rose, apple blossom and lily were some of the commoner sources of this descriptive vocabulary, part of a verbal edifice supported by an elaborate universe of symbolic correspondences. Few women, it seems, were compared to or named for the orchid, though in a nineteenth century floral dictionary "Orchis" appears as A Belle. The dangerously voluptuous and ambiguous nature of the orchid (as well as the testicular origins of the name) may have been less appropriate for such employment. How unusual was it at that time for a male artist to engage, repossess and redefine the complicated social etiquette within which flowers were held rigidly to their sexist duties? Though artists such as John La Farge join Heade in contributing to that tradition, Heade's flowers occupy a different realm of discourse -intense, daring, original, and, as with O'Keeffe's flowers later in the tradition, unabashedly sensual. They are a major part of his oeuvre, and contribute something unique and strange to an international tradition of flower painting that may be said to begin its modern course with the Dutch.
In asking oneself why this is so, answers may reside in the way the flowers are selected, presented, re-presented. Heade often did away with one of the conventions of flower painting, the ubiquitous vase. Branches are detached and hover against indeterminate backgrounds (apple blossoms), lie on a surface in horizontal formats (magnolias and Cherokee roses), sometimes in dialogue with sumptuous velvet backgrounds, as if they were precious. They are painted with a fibrillating touch when appropriate (apple blossoms) or their sheen and skins lushly simulated with the smoothed brush (magnolias and roses). In his tropical orchid paintings, Heade pioneers a new format and subject. The orchids are seen close-up, with hummingbirds in attendance, usually perched, sometimes suspended in their furious motionlessness. Behind, claustrophobic vistas of humid jungle open into distant sky, often thick with clouds; sometimes sheets of rain are falling in the distance, filtering the light. In other paintings the sinuous arabesques of the orchid stems initiate a circular movement that whorls its way into a tunnel of jungle vegetation, eventually opening to a distant rather circular light.
The South American paintings, so hot, intimate and enclosed, could not be more distant from the panoramic imperialism of his friend Church, where a different political and esthetic program is being carried through on the same terrain. Church's grand style and noble ambition are realized with a steady and implacable purpose. Into Heade's smaller, intense vistas his twin obsessions, orchids and hummingbirds, are repeatedly compressed. The result is magnetic and compelling. A key issue, I believe, in studying an artist's work is the force, energy and conviction with which an artist recognizes and grasps his or her subject. Heade's salt marshes, storms, and flowers are assimilated with an intensity that threatens to unlock some secret, indeed secretive, aspect of his nature. In the best Heades there is a sense of approaching an unmasking or laying bare. The flower paintings, particularly the magnolias and orchids, are the unlikely avatars of the most intimate revelations of one of the 19th century's most mysterious artists.
The sexuality of the orchid paintings is doubled in that the flowers themselves are suggestively configured and painted with a variety of strokings and touches. The fimbriated petals flutter with vitality; their buds, fatly brimming with imminent blossoms, pose beside mature cousins. The leaves, springing from sinuous stems, glisten. The stems, winding resolutely with a strange, even frightening calligraphic agitation, are filled with sap that would ooze if we could prick them. Few floral artists, before or after him, have so eloquently grasped the inner life of the flower, its living being, so to speak, partaking as much of basic organic laws as our own bodies. The crinkle-petalled orchids flourish in the dense tropical atmosphere on which they depend for life. The passion flowers underscore with their very name his rare utterance: Every man who possesses a soul has loved once, if not a dozen times, for passion was created with man, and is a part of his nature -otherwise the story of the apple is a lie. Perhaps it is precisely that passion, that penetration of the flower to its organic core, offering something far beyond a painted simulacra of the beautiful, that makes one aspect of his contribution to the floral tradition in America. It is possibly the same passion that made him something of a curmudgeon, impatient with pretense and banality -- that sent him roving.
The magnolias, naked displays on their simple grounds, nude history paintings, reinforce at the same time that continuing American concern with textural essences and distinctions: spiky smooth, rather metallic leaves, sumptuous soft white petals, always at the apogee of their fleshly luminescence, reclining on their velvet grounds, as John Baur put it, like odalisques on a couch. Heade's first biographer, McIntyre, found the magnolias endlessly mysterious: what would one not give to learn the real secret of the 'Magnolia Grandiflora' ? -- a sentiment shared by later writers on the flower paintings who point out their faintly sinister sexuality (Stebbins) and reciprocal spatial paradoxes (Manthorne).
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