Beginning in the 1870’s, following a trip through Panama and Columbia and ending in Jamaica, the Luminist painter Martin Johnson Heade produced twenty-one canvases depicting Cattleya labiata orchids and tropical humming birds. These paintings feature the same fixed form of the orchid, contour to contour and fold to fold, in each of these twenty-one canvases, while the surround of the backgrounds exchange an array of similar tropes and iconography –distant mountains, mossy branches, clouds, mist, and dense foliage– across the general scene. This floral object, grasped forensically in a one to one scale with the specimen1 is always suspended within the cycling drama of shifting weather, atmosphere, and canvas formats. The orchid’s placement shifts too in varying locations within the paintings. Secondary repetitions in these paintings emerge as leafs and pseudobulbs and sometimes with the hummingbirds themselves whose horizontal mirroring seems to cast the spectator’s gaze at the same moment to opposite locations in the scene.

Martin Johnson Heade, Orchid with an Amethyst Woodstat, 1874, Two Hummingbirds with an Orchid, 1875, Orchid and Hummingbird near a Mountain Waterfall, 1903, All oil on canvas. The paintings were made across a span of nearly thirty years.

What is this imagistic mold, these fixed luminous ossifications against such backdrops whose very nature is suggestive of impermanence? Unlike the Apollonian light in Frederick Church’s landscapes “that moves, consumes, agitates and drowns”2 as it radiates from a central point in space, there are always two suns in Heade’s Cattleya works. The first sun illuminates the orchid, always from the same place in the sky. The repeating shadows it casts within each orchid underscore their morphological stasis. The second sun illuminates the mist and clouds in roving quadrants of the sky, rotating one’s westward orientation sometimes outside the perspective of the frame entirely. “[L]uminist light largely derives its special quality from its containment within clearly defined geometries and sometimes, too, from the opposition of its brilliance to the ultraclarification of foreground detail… the stepped-back planes so characteristic of luminist space are retained, and the small impastos of stroke are carefully aligned so as not to disturb the mensuration.”3

“Landscape is a natural scene mediated by culture. It is both a represented and presented space, both signifier and signified, both frame and what the frame contains, both a real place and a simulacrum, both a package and the commodity inside the package.”4 (W.J.T. Mitchell)

Inside these repeating contours, twenty-one color sets fluctuate between warm and cool, sometimes across a single Cattleya. The cupped labella with their nested anther cap and column are always depicted with the greatest chromatic saturation while the lateral sepals and main petals are rendered in lighter iterations of pink, magenta, rose, orange, violet, purple and white. The stark artifice of their structural repetition is slowly displaced by this internal chromatic differencing. By degrees of color and rotation, these flowers actually seem to shed their morphological ossification. What flows into the figure of these frames is something like the cultivation of a desire, a coloring–as if one were shifting the hued lenses of Claude Glasses. These re-articulations of light shimmer against the appearance of essential and fixed subjects as they illuminate the profound difference that courses through all things.


Selected details of Martin Johnson Heade’s Cattleya orchids.

The jungle is gathered as a flat organization of space, folded, and pierced so as to connect multiple locations. As if in a dream, hummingbird species from across the colonial territories populate the same scene. They sit perched or hovering in flight. As though to acknowledge their far away reconfigurations, not a single bird attempts to drink from its corresponding flower. Does the landscape follow the violent decoupling and impossible fictionalization of its life forms? What is the locus of desire that models these spatial incursions? Does it circumvent the capitalistic logic of Natural “productivism” as does the becoming-orchid of Hardt and Negri’s wasp?5

“The explanation for Heade’s varied repertoire of hummingbirds and orchids is that both the birds and flowers were available to him in New York; indeed, his orchids particularly appear to have been inspired by studies made in large private gardens and greenhouses there.”6 England saw orchid cultivation on an industrialized scale beginning in the 1820’s, followed by its production in Boston, MA the following decade. While sketches made in the landscape, such as “Fern Tree Walk/Jamaica” (1870), and “Large Karolik Sketchbook: Sketches of Tropical Vegetation” from his Jamaica Sketchbook7 could have been grafted together to form the composite backgrounds of his orchid paintings, a greenhouse drawing is considered the singular referent for these Cattleya paintings. This recursive process circumscribes a movement that simultaneously re-extracts the orchid as a cultural and economic resource, and exports it to an elsewhere, a non-nature and an impossible geography that is both the painting itself, and the scene of the natural. From this careful choreography of things near and far, the seeming transparency and self-evidence of Nature is rendered but also mocked. Furthermore, it is this very naturalism that is threatened by Heade’s performance of repetition.

“The Landscape imperative is a kind of mandate to withdraw, to draw out by drawing back from a site. If a landscape, as we say, “draws us in” with its seductive beauty, this movement is inseparable from retreat to a broader, safer perspective, an aestheticizing distance, a kind of resistance to whatever practical or moral claim the scene might make on us.”8 (W.J.T. Mitchell)

As if to avert the magisterial gaze of the Hudson River School9 with its elevated and disembodying perspective, Heade’s series brings things intimately forward. Here, the proximity of touch and presence of objects projected towards the picture plane threatens the recessionary dimension of concurrent landscape programs. It situates Heade’s Cattleyas within the hybrid status of a mixed genre painting fluctuating between landscape and Still Life, not reimagined until O’Keeffe. In Heade, the spectator-viewer doesn’t so much traverse a providential prospect as hover in the immobilization of new objects.

“Historical materialism presents a specific way of regarding the relationship between humans and nature. It proposes that nature itself is historical. Through humanly deployed technologies, nature becomes historical, social, and so human in a sense. For Engels, too, the extraction and synthesis of alizarin [dye] up-ended the relationship between humans and the realm of nature, as ‘things in themselves’, unknowable entities of nature, became ‘things-for-us,’ remakable, remouldable, humanized.”10 (Esther Leslie)


Details of two Heade paintings.

Under what conditions does the repetition of this flower emerge? Does it unfold from the agrologistics of industrialized logic? Or the demand of the market for sexual inference in a Victorian era? Would a battle for iconographic exoticism and spatial novelty buffer against the great decline of the landscape genre? Were these contours cast in a search for new designs indicative of God’s perfection in Nature, or as “Darwin’s story…of proliferation, randomness, contingency, and useless display[?]”11 Is this logic of repetition not closer to that of the readymade’s since the actual mold and hue of Heade’s orchid had already been an object of mass trans-continental cultivation for decades?

“Because it was the first large-flowered Cattleya to arrive in Europe, C. labiata has been the victim of an endless number of fanciful stories about its discovery. One of the most whimsical is the anecdote that tells us that C. labiata was used as “packing material” for William Swainson’s ferns and mosses. The anecdote suggests, of course, that C. labiata was not recognized as having any value until it flowered in William Cattley’s greenhouse.”12(Cattleya Labiata, The Lost Orchid, Chadwick and Sons)

“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 his winding Orchids and Passion Flowers.”13 (Novak)


Selected details of Martin Johnson Heade’s Cattleya orchids.

“This chain of Christian filiation, however, would no longer be considered absolute at the moment that another continuous sequence, this time based on science, inscribed the human race within the network of evolution. In the end this network is only an objectivized version of the old filiation, applied not to the legitimacy of an ethnic community but to the natural universality of all known species…At that moment the generalization inspired by Christ was picked up by Darwin’s generalizing theory, though initially they opposed each other. Both were concerned with transcending the old mythical filiation linked to the destiny of a community, to go beyond this with a universalizing notion that would retain, however, the power of the principle of linearity and that “grasped” and justified History.”14 (Edouard Glissant)

In the West, the lexical symbolism of flowers has always been unstable but in Heade’s time, in an attendant series of his paintings, the Christian iconography of the Passion Flower would have been an example of a shared language of nature. “Associated with the passion of Christ since its introduction to Europe in the seventeenth century, the passion flower acquired its name because of the resemblance of its corona filaments to the crown of thorns. The three stigma, then represented the nails, and the ten sepals and petals, the ten apostles present the crucifixion (excluding Peter and Judas).”15 While no explicit symbolism is apparent in Heade’s Cattleya series, many historians have speculated on the sexual nature16 of these paintings “suggestively configured and painted with a variety of strokings and touches.”17 For Heade, the Cattleya was thought to be the cathexical figure of sublimation.

Errata: “Page 12, col. 2, line 18: ’Flowers, in the typical sexist projections of the nineteenth century were described in floral terms‘ should read ’Flowers in the typical sexist projections of the nineteenth century were appropriate subjects for women artists, who themselves were described in floral terms.’” 18(Novak)

“Heade’s orchids of the seventies have an essentially sexual duality: still life’s yet also landscapes, impossibly remote and exotic, they represent an element in the mainstream of American culture – that of Adam finding himself in the Garden – and are both masculine and feminine. In fact, these orchids are gynandrous, with the male stamens and female pistils fused in a single column…The flowers bear the name of the male testicle, carrying on their stems the swollen pods which account for their name [orchis], while even more compellingly visual is their undulating female form and remarkably specific resemblance of the flower’s labellum (or lip) to the female vagina.”19 (Stebbins)

Two superimposed Heade’s paintings, White Brazilian Orchid, (1875-1900), Hummingbird Perched on an Orchid Plant, 1901

The Cattleya labiata typically grows from the crevices of rocks with a root base that is absent from all twenty-one paintings. The omission reinforces again that Heade never saw these orchids in their indigenous habitat, which is somewhat ironic since 19th century American landscape discourse was imbued with its own repetitions of geology as a legitimizing index of Providential creation. In Heade’s series, the orchid climbs mossy tree limbs framing the picture diagonally from the lower left or right corners, ambiguously situating the spectator in the trees themselves or along the forest floor. What is suggested from shifting backgrounds in relation to these points of view is something like a fragmentary animation, a movement through a diorama whose spatial logic breaks down once one has left the viewing deck. “[W]e saw how time-lapse photography disturbs a Natural view of life forms. Furthermore, life forms are already time-lapse images. This is a strange and wonderful way to look at flowers. You could see daffodils as pictures of how an algorithm has manifested in “phase space,” the space that plots all the states of the flower as a system. At the base of the daffodil, where it joins the stem, you see traces of how the flower looked when it started to spread upward and outward. You’re looking at the daffodil’s past, as well as at the past development of the flower as a species…Thinking this way spookily undermines Nature from every angle and on every time scale.”20 (Morton)

“Artists are now scattered, like leaves or thistle blossoms, over the whole face of the country, in pursuit of some of their annual study of nature and necessary recreation. Some have gone far toward the North Pole, to invade the haunts of the iceberg with their inquisitive and unsparing eyes—some have gone to the far West, where Nature plays with the illimitable and grand—some have become tropically mad, and are pursuing a sketch up and down the Cordilleras through Central America and down the Andes. If such is the spirit and persistency of American art, we may well promise ourselves good things for the future.”21 (The Cosmopolitan Art Journal 1859 )

The repetition of the flower in all twenty-one paintings would have required a simple device to reproduce its detailed contours. Cartooning would not have sufficed, and since Heade derived the form from a matrix sketch, it is unlikely that he would have used any of the lens-based apparatuses including photography that were available to him at the time. Heade likely used a cut-stencil, made from a drawing which would also account for the fact that many other forms in this series from humming birds to leaves are flipped horizontally.22 The practicality of this analogue process might pull us back from the knot of cathexis reorienting us towards questions of the market. Was the urge in this production merely a financial one –as Mondrian vehemently declared of his own serial flora? Heade had developed a simple image based ecology in which processes of iconographic extraction, quasi-mechanical replication and recombination could be endlessly composed. Not unlike today’s imaging technologies Heade’s paintings posit a total knowledge of the world, one that is slowly retracted by the horror of their uncanniness and a strange naturalism that works against itself.

“[T]he native dweller is seen as someone who fails to see the material wealth and value of the land, a value that is obvious to the Western observer. The failure of the native to exploit, develop, and “improve”[nature…] is, paradoxically, what makes it so valuable, so ripe for appropriation. The failure to exploit the land, its “undeveloped” character, also seems to confer a presumptive right of conquest and colonization on the Western observer, who comes armed with both the weapons and arguments to underwrite the legitimacy of his appropriation of the land (according to the Tertullian, the pagan or rustic country-dweller is understood to be contrasted with the miles, the soldier and especially the Christian, crusading soldier). Landscape thus serves as an aesthetic alibi for conquest, a way of naturalizing imperial expansion and even making it look disinterested in a Kantian sense.”23 (W.J.T. Mitchell)

Digital superimposition of four paintings of Martin Johnson Heade. These rotated frames align all contours of the flower and show their shifting alignments from painting to painting.

What is it that elicits this repetitious choreography of the template, this returning scene of the natural? Does the phantasmic projection of painting engender other acts of creation? –new undreamed of combinations of carotenoids and flavonoids? Does one breed pictures as, say, a botanist cultivates knowledge? We could recall the East India Company’s fever for “economic botany”, its “National Botanic Garden, the nexus of a global network…would be the sun around which the satellite imperial gardens revolved, bestowing their beneficial rays on British commerce, agriculture, medicine, horticulture, and manufactures.”24 Is this repetition an acceleration of the collapse of the distance of the world itself? Have these pictures already thoroughly proliferated into images as if to anticipate the dizzying algorithmic selection of the stock image? Perhaps Heade’s unnatural replications may actually bring us closer to something like the dark entanglements of ecology. Instead of a coherent and universalizing Nature, these violent artifices and suturings gesture toward the incursions of not-knowledge, the unnaturalness of Nature, and paintings radical potential for dissemblance. We might see these twenty-one works as an expanding field of contingency. Their internal movements chart not so much the locations of particular objects, but of the vast registers of difference that open upon every delineation, every namable contour, every generalized color. In this vibrating stasis, each frame blurs its given measure and totality as it dilates out from self-resemblance towards a space of Becoming.

Marc Handelman, Mirror, 2013, Oil and projection-screen glass on canvas, 87.5 x 61.75 inches, Dear Stakeholder, 2014

Marc Handelman is a visual artist and is an Assistant Professor at Mason Gross School of Art, Rutgers University. He has taught in the graduate programs at Yale University, Bard, and Columbia University.



  1. Theodore E. Stebbins Jr., Martin Johnson Heade, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1999, pp. 110 & 113.
  2. Barbara Novak, Nature and Culture American Landscape Painting, 1825-1875, revised edition, Oxford university Press, New York & Oxford, 1980, pp. 42.
  3. Barbara Novak, American Painting, pp. 64-73, quoted in The Natural Paradise, Painting in America 1800-1950, Ed., Kynaston McShine, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1976, p. 42.
  4. W.JT. Mitchell, Landscape and Power, Ed. W.JT. Mitchell, University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London, 1994, p. 5.
  5. This reference is from Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s discussion of the orchid-wasp in The Common Wealth. After discussing the logic and metaphor of “social production” in the flower/bee union which is also a “production of the same”, Hardt and Negri turn to the analogy of the Orchid-Wasp as a critical opening of becoming other: “Guattari’s delight at this example is due in part to the fact that it undercuts the industriousness and “productivism” usually attributed to nature. These wasps aren’t your dutiful worker bees: they aren’t driven to produce anything. They just want to have fun…Deleuze and Guattari insist, first of all, that the orchid is not imitating the wasp or trying to deceive it, as botanists often say. The orchid is becoming-wasp (becoming the wasp’s sexual organ) and the wasp is becoming orchid (becoming part of the orchid’s system of reproduction).” pp. 186-187, “What we are looking for—and what counts in love is the production of subjectivity and the encounter of singularities, which compose new assemblages and constitute new forms of the common.” P. 186. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Common Wealth, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England, 2009, pp. 184-188.
  6. Theodore E. Stebbins Jr., The Life and Work of martin Johnson Heade, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1975, p. 146.
  7. Stebbins (1999), p. 51.
  8. Mitchell, (1994) p. viii.
  9. See Albert Boime, Manifest Destiny and American Landscape Painting c. 1830-1865, Smithsonian Books, 1991.
  10. Esther Leslie, Synthetic Worlds, Nature, Art and the Chemical Industry, Reaktion Books, Great Britain, 2005, p. 14.
  11. Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England 2010, p. 240.
  12. Cattleya Labiata, The Lost Orchid, Chadwick and Sons, 2015. http://chadwickorchids.com/content/cattleya-labiata
  13. Barbara Novak, Martin Johnson Heade, Eaton Fine Art, Inc., 1996, p. 12.
  14. Edouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, Translated by Betsy Wing, The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1997, p. 49.
  15. Stebbins (1999), PP 99-100.
  16. Stebbins(1999) PP 169.
  17. Barbara Novak, Martin Johnson Heade, Eaton Fine Art, Inc., 1996, p. 13.
  18. Novak (1996), errata insert.
  19. Stebbins (1975), p. 143.
  20. Morton, (2010), p. 68.
  21. The Cosmopolitan Art Journal 1859, The Natural Paradise, Painting in America 1800-1950, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1976, in On Divers Themes From Nature, A Selection of Texts, Ed. Barbara Novak, pp. 80-81.
  22. Conservation researchers at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where the most number of Heade works are held, speculate that “The red material, seen with the naked eye or through the microscope at the edges of the flowersmay be indicative of replication and transfer of the outlines of blossoms from one composition to the next. The red occurs as a line at the edges of flowers that are almost identical in size and shape to the flowers in other compositions. One possible copy method available to Heade was advertised in the popular art journalCrayon as “Magic Impression Paper [Carbon Paper] for … Copying Leaves, Plants, Flowers … will also mark linen. … Each package contains four different colors: Black, Blue, Green and Red, with full printed instructions, for all to use, and will last sufficiently long to obtain five hundred distinct impressions” (Durand, A. B.1855. Letters on landscape paintings: Letter 1. Crayon1, no. 6 (Jan. 3):1.) http://cool.conservation-us.org/jaic/articles/jaic41-02-005.html
  23. Mitchell (1994) p. 265-66.
  24. Eugenia W. Herbert, Flora’s Empire, British Gardens in India, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2011, p. 146.