Passion Flowers and Hummingbirds

about 1870–83
Martin Johnson Heade (American, 1819–1904)


39.37 x 54.93 cm (15 1/2 x 21 5/8 in.)

Accession Number


Medium or Technique

Oil on canvas

On View

Waleska Evans James Gallery (Gallery 236)





During a career that spanned almost seventy years, Heade, an ardent naturalist and traveler, painted a great variety of subjects: portraits [48.426], luminous salt-marsh scenes [47.1159], seascapes (often with thunder storms) [45.889], tropical landscapes [47.1153], hummingbird and orchid pictures [47.1164], and floral still lifes [48.427]. Heade had been fascinated by hummingbirds since his childhood, and in 1863–64 he spent six months in Brazil painting hummingbirds in their natural habitat; he intendedto use the pictures as illustrations in a book to be called “The Gems of Brazil.” Although the book was never published, the artist did complete some forty-five small paintings of hummingbirds. After two trips to Central America in 1866 and 1870, Heade began a distinctive group of works combining hummingbirds and tropical flowers.
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 [Res.27.93], were subsequently inspired by Darwin’s theories of evolution and the role of interrelationships in the natural world.

This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).


Lower left: M J Heade


With a Philadelphia dealer. 1944, Victor Spark, New York; 1944, sold by Victor Spark to Maxim Karolik, Newport, R.I.; 1947, gift of Maxim Karolik to the MFA. (Accession Date: June 12, 1947)

Credit Line

Gift of Maxim Karolik for the M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Paintings, 1815–1865