Martin Johnson Heade was born in Pennsylvania, in August 1819. He was from a small community in Bucks County, along the Delaware River, in a village called Lumberville, but was destined to larger American cities, as well as exotic tropical locations throughout his career. His family owned the village’s main commerce until the mid-1850s and was originally named Heed. By the age of twenty, Heade was studying painting under Edward Hicks, a folk artist, and most likely with Thomas Hicks as well, his cousin. He began portraying mostly portraits during the 1840s, a motif he eventually left behind.
After spending a couple of years abroad in Rome, Heade began to exhibit his work in prestigious galleries, like the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and at the National Academy of Design in New York - a location he eventually settled at in 1859, about a decade after he began to exhibit his art frequently. During this period, Heade became friends with many artists of the Hudson River School who inspired him to landscape painting. He created professional bonds with painters like Sanford Gifford, Albert Bierstadt, and Frederic Edwin Church - who became his close friend as well. His interest in landscapes had already been incited before moving to the Big Apple. In 1857, he met Benjamin Champney and John Frederick Kensett, two outstanding painters from New Hampshire, more specifically the White Mountains.
Church’s friendship was not only important to Heade at a personal level, but at an artistic level as well. Church’s 1859 painting entitled The Heart of the Andes had a significant impact on Heade, inspiring him to take the tropical motif farther. He traveled to the exotic rainforests of Brazil in 1863 and 1864, documenting the incredible nature in a series of sketches and studies. Heade was mesmerized by the Brazilian fauna and flora, like the colorful, delicate flowers, and tropical birds, especially the hummingbirds. The painter continued exploring tropical locations to romantically portray in his artworks, like Nicaragua in 1866, as well as Colombia, Jamaica, and Panama four years later. Heade was indeed inspired by the Romanticists of his time but represented a separating from these artists. The same goes for his relation to the Hudson River School, as he preferred to depict scenes with less grandeur, like the tidal marshes of the New England coastline. Ultimately, his salt marsh landscapes became his best-known works.
By the end of Heade’s career, he was living in St. Augustin, Florida with his wife - where he moved to in 1883 and would continue living and producing his art until his death. During this period, he enjoyed painting still life compositions of delicate flowers on smooth velvet - a motif that the artist already had interest for a couple of decades. The importance of Heade’s works became known to scholars and the public during the 1940s, and it was found that he created an extensive body of work, passing any other American artist of the XIX century. Heade passed away in September of 1904.