Wondrous creatures: the paintings of Martin Johnson Heade Public Deposited

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  • March 22, 2019
  • Towns, Betsy
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Art and Art History
  • Art Historians describe Heade's paintings of hummingbirds in two very different ways: first, as highly realistic, even scientific, representations of the natural world, and second, as spiritual, sensual, phantasmagorical explorations suggestive of something more-in short, of revelations of the artist himself. Foregrounding Heade's paintings of hummingbirds, Wondrous Creatures investigates each of these ways of understanding and what they reveal about Heade and his works. Beginning in 1862, Heade painted at least 120 pictures of hummingbirds, glittering birds painted large and close before alluring tropical landscapes. En route, Heade had painted children in flight, landscapes populated with haystacks and light, flowers snipped and arranged in decorative vases, and sober portraits. He left a country rent by civil war, traveling to a land of promise to document the hummingbird, then on to England where he showed portraits of fairylike birds alongside British paintings of 'real' fairies. Each stop along this path shaped the outcome; Wondrous Creatures looks beneath the glaze of documentary realism to consider their contributions at depth. Wondrous Creatures triangulates art history, the history of natural science, and cultural studies to expose the suggestions in Heade's paintings. The process depends on identifying the substitutions and transformations evident in Heade's oeuvre, wherein spiritual ornithology becomes naturalistic fantasy, hummingbirds becomes fairies, orchids becomes animistic giants, children becomes hummingbirds, and landscape becomes a stage 'peopled' with haystacks, humans, or hummingbirds. The dissertation asserts that, in depicting the hummingbird, Heade rapidly exceeded the boundaries of natural history painter, becoming also a storyteller, portraitist, Pre-Raphaelite painter, at times even a fairy painter, his gleaming images describing the ways that his tiny special pets love deeply, battle furiously, and hum with sexuality even while varnished with the innocence of the child. Asserting that birds, like all animals, were emptied of any innate meaning by the end of the eighteenth century to make room for nostalgia, narrative, and symbolic usage, and considering the works and their subjects within their historical and cultural context, Wondrous Creatures asserts that Heade stuffed depictions of natural elements densely with legible, if poetically concealed, human meanings.
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  • In Copyright
  • Mavor, Carol
  • Open access

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