Painter. Known for landscapes as well as depictions of hummingbirds and flowers, early in his career he also painted portraits and a few other subjects. An idiosyncratic and aloof personality, he deviated from common lifestyle patterns of contemporaries, as he restlessly resisted acquiring a permanent address and seems not to have courted conventional routes to success. His diverse, original, and psychologically unsettling body of work obsessively treats a few themes, sometimes pursued for decades. These include marsh landscapes, hummingbirds paired with tropical flowers, and tabletop flower arrangements, usually focused on a few lush blossoms painted about natural size. He also painted numerous views across the sea from shore vantages, including several striking views of approaching storms. In addition, he published a few poems and, after 1880, more than a hundred pseudonymous articles and letters on nature and environmental subjects in Forest and Stream. Born with the surname Heed, he later adopted a variant spelling. He grew up in his birthplace, Lumberville, Pennsylvania, on the Delaware River, and trained in the late 1830s with Edward Hicks in nearby Newtown. Subsequently he worked primarily as a portraitist as he adopted a nomadic existence that persisted for more than forty years. Gradually he progressed toward a more academically fluent style and undertook more varied subjects. He may have traveled in Europe in the early 1840s, and his presence is documented in Italy in 1848. After meeting Frederic Church in New York, he turned his full attention to landscape. Among the earliest convincing expressions of his personal vision, The Coming Storm (Metropolitan Museum, 1859) exemplifies salient qualities of luminism in its combination of sharp detail, measured space, reductive composition of abstracted forms, close attention to light effects, and glossy surface. Yet its foreboding tone is exceptional. Two small boats offshore on the darkened water, along with a foreground man observing the threatening conditions with his dog, symbolize vulnerability to potentially shattering forces.
Heade soon undertook a long series examining meadows, particularly the Massachusetts salt marshes. In these, under closely observed meteorological conditions, haystacks provide the measure of a flat landscape devoid of picturesque features. Late in 1863 on a visit to Brazil, Heade first painted hummingbirds. At first isolated in pairs, after 1870 he combined them with passion flowers or orchids, seen close-up against misty tropical backdrops. Subsequently he returned to South America on two occasions and also visited Central American and Caribbean sites. In addition, he traveled to London in 1865. In 1883 he first painted the Florida landscape. After briefly returning to New York, in the fall he settled permanently in St. Augustine. Much of his attention in later years was given to flower paintings, nearly all showing Cherokee roses or, more notably, magnolias, theatrically lighted as they languish in claustrophobic spaces. With their erotic overtones, intimations of transience and death, and hallucinatory hyperrealism, they remain among the most peculiar and enigmatic products of nineteenth-century American painting.