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MARTIN JOHNSON HEADE

PASSION FLOWERS AND HUMMINGBIRDS, ABOUT 1870-83

About the Artwork

In Passion Flowers and Hummingbirds Heade depicted two small, black-and-white Snowcap hummingbirds, a species found in Panama, and the most brilliantly colored species of passionflower, Passiflora racemosa, in a steamy, lush jungle setting. The passionflower is so named because missionaries saw correspondences between the parts of the flower and the Passion (or sufferings) of Christ: the ten petals represent the ten apostles present at the crucifixion, the corona filaments resemble the crown of thorns, and the three stigmas relate to the nails in the cross. In this work, Heade successfully combined his scientific interests with his aesthetic sensitivity, accurately rendering the birds and the passionflowers in a close-up view while gracefully composing the winding stems across the surface of the picture and contrasting the cool jungle greens and grays with the dazzling red of the flowers.

Heade’s paintings were informed by a worldview recently revolutionized by British naturalist Charles Darwin; to support the theories about evolution in his book The Effects of Cross and Self Fertilisation in the Vegetable Kingdom (1876), Darwin specifically mentioned the adaptation of hummingbird beaks to fertilize passionflowers. Although Heade was one of the first to reflect Darwin’s theories in his paintings of flowers in their natural habitats, other artists, such as John La Farge, were subsequently inspired by Darwin’s theories of evolution and the role of interrelationships in the natural world.

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