landscape; mountains; Andes; tropical; Red-tailed Comet; hummingbird
A life-long hummingbird enthusiast, the nineteenth-century American landscape and still life painter Martin Johnson Heade began rendering the bird as early as 1862, in advance of a trip to Rio de Janeiro the following year. During his South American sojourn, Heade assiduously studied the region’s innumerable species of hummingbirds, producing a series that he called the “Gems of Brazil,” featuring luminous, quasi-scientific renderings of the birds (often in pairs) in their natural habitat and against a lush tropical backdrop.
The Mead’s picture, which Heade likely painted in New York, reprises one of the most radiant “gems,” the Red-tailed Comet (Sappho sparganura). The brilliantly colored male bird dominates the composition, as he turns back seemingly to enjoy the atmospheric vista in the distance. His female companion, by contrast, occupies their nest like a dutiful wife. Because the Red-tailed Comet is native to Bolivia and parts of western South America, but not to Brazil, Heade must have known it primarily from specimen skins.