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Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Don’t Look Outside, Look Here

posted by on June 4 at 9:53 AM

The current weather condition in the Pacific Northwest is unspeakable. Therefore, divert your eyes to other landscapes.


This painting is Tropical Landscape with Ten Hummingbirds by Martin Johnson Heade, and it’s up now at Seattle Art Museum (on extended loan from the Roy Nutt Family Trust).

There are three magical things about it. First of all, it hangs above this marvelously overheated piece of furniture from around the same period, and the pairing is terrific.

Second, according to the wall label, the Heade painting includes 10 hummingbirds of various species, each one painted at life size. They look pretty small to me, but perhaps hummingbirds, like humans, used to be just a little littler. In any case, it’s cool to identify hummingbirds, but it’s even cooler that a native of rural Lumberville, Pennsylvania (born in 1819), made a far-out tropical painting that also strains at being factual.

This gives me an excuse to share one of my favorite Hudson River School paintings, also by Heade.


It’s called Gremlin in the Studio II, and Heade painted it sometime in the 1860s. It looks very much like dozens of his other marshland paintings, but with a major difference: See how the picturesque view of the Massachusetts marshland is set on sawhorses? And how there is a gremlin dancing underneath there? (He’s hard to make out in this reproduction, but not in the flesh.) And how the gremlin and the sawhorses are draining water off the marsh onto the studio floor below?

This painting made me laugh out loud when I saw it in the Wadsworth Atheneum traveling show that visited Tacoma Art Museum in 2004, and made me fall in love with Heade. None of his other paintings will ever look the same again after you see this one. The life-sized hummingbirds even seem like they incorporate a sly joke on painting while at the same time doing the work of a straight-up naturalist.

The third and final thing I love about Heade’s hummingbirds painting at SAM is that it features passionflowers. They’re those pink, slightly obscene-looking things.

Also in 2004, I wrote an essay about the passionflower, because I saw it on the street one day and found it so strange. I discovered that when Spanish missionaries found it in the Amazon jungle, they saw it as God in flower form. (I’d send you a link to the essay, but The News Tribune, where it was printed, makes you pay to read it.)

Here’s an excerpt:

Under [the] gaze [of the misssionaries], encrypted symbolism melted into a botanical Passion play. The 10 splayed petals became the unwavering apostles of Christ. The fiery halo of multicolored filaments was his flaring crown of thorns, his imagined body bound by the flower’s tightly coiled climbing tendrils. Five stamens jutted out from the bloom, one for each of Christ’s wounds, and green leaves with five lobes were the interfering hands of the prosecutors.

To them, it was a divine sign as plain as a lightning bolt. They named it passiflora, or passionflower.

The flowers inspire awe even in novices who know nothing of the religious associations. They’re electrifying, elaborate little sculptures with more than a hundred tiny parts on a single blossom.

Passionflower is a vine traced to South America - Peru or southern Brazil, depending on whom you ask. In the Amazon, where it grows best, they call it by another name: maracuja.

It has about 500 species with purple, blue, white, red or pink flowers and orange, yellow or purple fruits roughly the size of lemons with black seeds inside.

According to the Marshall Cavendish Illustrated Encyclopedia of Plants and Earth Sciences, the passiflora edulis var flaviocarpa, of Hawaii, forms the basis of the passion fruit juice industry. That includes Hawaiian Punch.

Passiflora’s flowers and fruits have been used for centuries as calming sedatives, a practice the Spanish learned from South American natives. Some say it’s an aphrodisiac.

The vines are fast-growing and climb up to 20 or 30 feet. They’re also hardy - they can stay evergreen through a Northwest winter - and aggressive. One species threatened to smother a forest in Hawaii in 1987 and had to be eradicated from there.

It’s best to buy common blue passionflower, passiflora caerulea, at a nursery in gallon or 5-gallon pots or on a trellis. Starts can be hard to get going. And other colors are generally not hardy enough to thrive here, said Watson’s nursery manager Bev McFarlane…

Passionflower is not well-known, but its startling beauty casts a spell that results in a rush of impulse buying.

A lot of people who buy them have never seen them before,” McFarlane said.


RSS icon Comments


I liked this. Thanks, Jen.

Posted by Gloria | June 4, 2008 9:57 AM

Great post. I just have to go SAM now to see that painting.

Posted by alien | June 4, 2008 10:12 AM

Gremlin in the Studio II is fantastic! Now that's the kind of landscape painting that I can get behind.

Posted by Bison | June 4, 2008 10:20 AM

I love passion flowers. They look like beautiful alien genitalia.

Posted by Providence | June 4, 2008 10:29 AM

Thanks again Jen, for pushing more art into our daily conversation. This is great!!

Posted by jackseattle | June 4, 2008 10:42 AM

Thanks for the introduction to Martin Johnson Heade. Beautiful stuff!

I was also lured by the alien beauty of the passion flower to plant a vine in my yard. Unfortunately the plant is very invasive -- dang these jungle plants! -- and I ended up pulling it. My neighbors still haven't completely eradicated it from their yard yet. Ah well, mine is infested with their Jupiter's beard, amongst other things. It's as though plants don't understand property lines.

Posted by Ramdu | June 4, 2008 10:42 AM

Hrm, the marvelously overheated furniture refuses to appear for me. Perhaps I am supposed to imagine it!

Posted by leek | June 4, 2008 10:44 AM

Thank you for reminding me that tomorrow is First Thursday at SAM, I know what I'm going to go look at tomorrow. The passion flowers are amazing, I keep meaning to try to grow one in a container but am very, very afraid I'll kill it.

Posted by Jessica | June 4, 2008 11:01 AM


Posted by Jim | June 4, 2008 12:55 PM

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