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Saturday, March 31, 2012

Martin Johnson Heade

Martin Johnson Heade
Many amateur artists, and maybe even a few professionals, enjoy the pleasure of poking through the contents of garage sales--or yard sales, porch sales, whatever the venue--in search of picture frames, antique or other wise, to refurbish and bring back to life with one of their painted masterpieces. For anywhere from a quarter to a few dollars, it's a cheap way to frame the sometimes prodigious output of many compulsive dippers and daubers. One thing you might want to look out for as you poke through the precious peculiarities of the past is what those old frames might contain in the way of art. Joan Comey-Smith of Fort Myers, Florida, paid $1.99 for an old frame she liked. When she looked at the back, she saw the name, "Rodin." Though no art expert, she recognized the name just the same. When she got it home and looked it over, she thought the 6 by 9 inch ink and watercolor painting of a dancing girl had to be a print. A few months later, in front of the Oprah Winfrey talk show audience, she learned from appraisers her tiny painting was worth $14,000. And you thought all the time Rodin was only a sculptor.

Singing Beach, Manchester, 1862, Martin Johnson Heade
Another artist you might want to keep an eye out for in your garage sale rummaging is the work of Martin Johnson Heade. Two art dealers did just that, finding one of his landscapes in a Larchmont, New York antique shop. Heade painted landscapes, a few portraits, and such to pay the bills, but his real love was the salt marshes and thunderstorms of his childhood in Pennsylvania and elsewhere along the east coast as seen in his Singing Beach, Manchester (above) from 1862. Beyond that though, his greatest love was hummingbirds. Heade was born in 1819 and not only became the foremost painter of the delightful little avian creatures, but the foremost expert on them. During the Civil War, he was invited to South America by Brazilian Emperor, Pedro II, who shared his love for hummingbirds. The emperor told him which hill to climb to get the best view of the Rio de Janeiro; and there he also found the greatest profusion of hummingbirds on earth. He first painted the view, then the birds, feeding, feuding, fighting, courting, and guarding their nests. Adding to that, Heade painted the flowers the birds so loved, orchids (as seen below), giant magnolias, passion flowers, and Cherokee roses in profusion.

Cattieya Orchids and Three Hummingbirds, 1871, Martin Johnson Heade
After the Civil War, Martin Johnson Heade studied art in Rome and had some success painting in England for a time, but he was unsuccessful in raising the necessary money for a proposed book on hummingbirds illustrating the multiplicity of colors he so loved. Heade moved back to the United States. He still could find no backers for his pet project but not for lack of trying. He moved regularly from city to city painting and trying to sell. He was able to move some of his work through art dealers in New York and while in Washington, DC, he painted a portrait of Texas hero, General Sam Houston which still hangs in the Governor's Mansion in Austin. Sometime along the way, Heade came to the notice of Henry Flagler, a Standard Oil founder and the multimillionaire who, with his coastal railway, was largely responsible for opening up the state of Florida to wealthy easterners in search of a warm place to hide each year from the winter cold. Heade went to work for the St. Augustine hotel owner who paid him the then enormous sum of $2,000 each for two of his biggest painting.  Married at the age of 64, Martin Head and his wife were to spend the rest of his life living in a small bungalow Flagler built for them on the grounds of his hotel. Heade died in 1904 at the age of 85. 
River Scene: Early Evening after Sunset, 1887-1900, Martin Johnson Heade,
from his Florida period.

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