early american natural history



Hummingbirds, Heade, & Hawthorne


For the average contemporary viewer, hummingbird paintings are likely a bit prosaic.  Compared to, say, the recent suspended or dissected sharks of Damien Hurst, paintings of hummingbirds aren’t the most provocative art on the scene.  They certainly aren’t signs of luxury and power or scandalously sexual.  At one time, however, hummingbirds were all those things.


After his death, in 1881, a man named John Gould, who had worked with Charles Darwin on the voyage of the Beagle among many other accomplishments, donated some 5,378 hummingbird specimens to the British Museum. 1 Five thousand three hundred seventy eight stuffed birds or bird skins, all hummingbirds.  It is difficult to imagine that many hummingbirds at all, whether alive or dead.


Gould did not collect all of the birds himself. He bought collections from others collectors, and he had specimens sent regularly from South and North America. 2  However, the sheer number of his final collection is staggering, and it speaks to the fascination that hummingbirds held for the Romantics and Victorians, both British and American.


John Gould was not alone.  William Bullock, (1173-1849) a collector and exhibitor in London, Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827) who owned a natural history museum in Philadelphia, and George Loddiges (1786–1846) part of the Loddiges family nursery in England all collected and displayed taxidermy hummingbirds on a large scale. 3  Often, stuffed hummingbirds were posed “naturally,” that is, on branches or with their wings extended as if in flight, and housed in cases dedicated solely to hummingbirds.  The cases were often elaborate or gilt, communicating the degree to which hummingbirds were considered a luxury commodity and a fashionable status symbol. 4


In fact, hummingbirds not only appeared in the homes or museums of natural history collectors— they were also a fashion item.  Birds were, of course, a key part of the fashion for hats in the Victorian period, so much so that by the end of the nineteenth century the plumage trade began to decimate bird populations.  The great white egret is the most often cited example.  However, taxidermy hummingbirds were found on fans, in coiffures, in floral arrangements, and on earrings.


Taxidermy earrings would strike most contemporary people as, for lack of a better word, creepy.  Contemporary earring-wearers are less likely to be familiar with death and more attuned to the problems of mass extinction, not to mention being far less accustomed to taxidermy as a regular part of life.  However, advances in taxidermy during the nineteenth century meant that it was easier to bring back exotic specimens from other countries and preserve them, intact, for people to experience firsthand.  Further, middle class Victorians, with their increased purchasing power, could engage in collecting the more widely available stuffed specimens.  For the first time, unseen species could be experienced in color, with their proper shapes, and posed as if alive.  Victorians didn’t yet see taxidermy as imbued with the stiffness and inadequacy of representation that contemporary viewers experience. 5


No one did more to capitalize on the popularity of hummingbirds than John Gould.  In 1851 during the Great Exhibition in London, Gould presented his stuffed hummingbirds, mounted in revolving glass cases,  inside a glass pavilion of the Zoological Gardens.  In his description, Gould refers to them as “living gems” and they were certainly displayed as such. 6  The exhibit drew 75,000  visitors.  7


Charles Dickens reviewed the 1851 exhibition, writing that the hummingbirds “hang amidst fuchsia flowers, . . . dart long beaks into deep, tubular flowers, hovering beneath the pendant bells . . . [and]  poise themselves in the air, we hear not the humming of the wings, but we can almost fancy there is a voice in that beauty.” 8


The British obsession was somewhat understandable: the hummingbird is a strictly New World species.  And the vast majority of hummingbird species live in Central and South America.  Gould, who saw hummingbirds on the Beagle voyage, did not see another live one until 1857.  9 Gould, Loddiges, and Bullock as well as other Brits and Europeans went to great lengths to bring back live hummingbirds to Europe.  All were unsuccessful.  Gould  describes his attempts to keep live hummingbirds:


The little cage in which they lived was twelve inches long, by seven inches wide, and eight inches high.  In this was placed a diminutive branch of a tree and suspended to the side a glass phial which I daily supplied with saccharine matter in the form of sugar or honey and water, with the addition of the yelk of an unboiled egg 10


It’s difficult not to feel sorry for hummingbird attempting to live in the confines equivalent to a modern shoe box.


Martin Johnson Heade was one of the hummingbird-obsessed. His series of paintings The Gems of Brazil (1863-64) was intended to be a work that would rival Gould’s publications on hummingbirds.  Determined to work from live birds as well as specimens, Heade traveled to South America to achieve his aims.  He embarked on the journey just as the Civil War was breaking out in America, and he advocated anti-slavery in his contact with Dom Pedro II of Brazil.  11 Hummingbirds were apparently also a passion of Pedro II, and one of his chief exports.  Heade was an abolitionist and corresponded with other prominent abolitionists of the day.  Hummingbirds were often seen as emblems of freedom by activists such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, 12 presumably due to their freedom of flight and their migration patterns north and south each year in North America.


The Gems offer a collector's cabinet of birds depicted as precious jewels but also intended to offer clear, ordered notation on the biology of each bird.  It could be said that these paintings portray hummingbirds in well-mannered Victorian domestic portraits with parents over-seeing the raising of their young. 13  The paintings are an ordered, beautiful display of these precious commodities, one that would have been at home with Gould’s stuffed displays.  Sadly for Heade, the publication he hoped to produce never materialized.



Charles Darwin was equally fascinated and troubled by hummingbirds. The development of the beaks of some species as specially adapted to particular plants was validating.  However, their iridescent and at times flamboyant plumage irked him in the same ways as his famous response to the peacock, which made him physically ill.  Its plumage seemed to have no advantage in terms of survival— it is cumbersome, difficult to camouflage, and doesn’t help in obtaining food or escaping predators.  Hummingbirds and birds of paradise fell into the same category for Darwin--that is, until he more fully developed his theory of sexual selection in Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex.  Nearly half of the second volume is taken up with discussing the mating rituals, habits, and plumage of birds. 14  While The Descent of Man (1871) is not a particularly titillating read by today’s standards, much of it is about sex: the means by which species develop characteristics in order either to fight for or attract mates.


In many ways, sexual selection was even more troubling for Victorians than natural selection. It went against Victorian sensibilities about sexuality, about the roles of women in sex (for many species, females are the ones who chose and males the ones who display), and about the role of sex in life. 15


There is some evidence, however, that Darwin’s ideas, promoted in articles before their collection in Descent of Man, had an effect on the paintings of Martin Johnson Heade.


One of Heade’s journals includes a reference to Philip H. Gosse’s Birds of Jamaica; Gosse was a popular natural history writer whose 1861 book The Romance of Natural History cites Darwin extensively.  Darwin’s theories had spread quickly in natural history circles, and Heade was an avid natural history reader.  However, Heade never stated his views on Darwin, and he was acquainted with both supporters and opponents of Darwin’s theories. 16


Whether Darwin had a direct or indirect effect on Heade’s painting, the images of hummingbirds and orchids that appear after 1870 differ significantly from the earlier ones.  The addition of orchids, almost over-blooming through the scene, is one obvious change.  Darwin was certainly one of the writers who popularized orchids in his 1862 On the Various Contrivances by Which British and Foreign Orchids Are Fertilized by Insects that explored the role of insects in the sexual reproduction of Orchids. 17 Yet ‘Orchidmania’ was already in full swing in Europe and the United States during the 1830s with figures such as the Duke of Devonshire collecting hot houses full of exotic orchids. 18  There were orchid houses in New York and Pennsylvania in the United States.  Despite the orchid’s popularity as a collecting plant, it was not often painted— apparently, it was too sexual in its associations for Victorian sensibilities 19 (the shape as well as the name which derives from the Greek orkhis, meaning testicle).  The orchid was a plant both coveted as a collectors item and rejected as sexually corrupting.


Heade’s second round of paintings practically seethe with life.  The orchids are in the process of blooming, withering, and budding.  Insect life crawls over the surface of branches which are at times partly rotting and covered with lichens and moss, literally overwhelmed with life.  In the midst of this are hummingbirds, often paired with plants they would not appear with in the wild.  These birds are fighting, settled, contemplating the plants or insects.  The demure pairs with young are gone.   Frequently, the backgrounds are almost epic in their lighting (an elements that has come,  somewhat controversially, to be called the Luminist school which includes the painting of Frederich Church).  The backgrounds are as overabundant with life as the foregrounds, and each plant and animal seems part of a dynamic environment.


The hummingbird was one of the birds adapted specially to plants and flowers, each of which Darwin conjectured were constantly changing to suit each other, and Darwin as well as others was convinced that the tropics were the best place to view change: the heat and differing climates created rapid and varied species change. 20  South America and the tropics were considered a “hot-house” of evolution and sexual selection.  About this, the scientists of Darwin’s time were right, at least in the case of the hummingbird.  Recent studies have shown that while hummingbirds originated in Europe, where they became extinct, it was not until their arrival in South America about 22 million years ago that they evolved into 338 the species present there today, a relatively recent period in terms of evolutionary development. 21


The second series of paintings of hummingbirds by Heade reveal all these Romantic and Victorian era issues, a blend of  luxury commodity, sexual titillation, and partly scientific inquiry.  They seem to come from such a hot house of constant change, of a kind that would have been both startling and risqué in it’s time.  Yet Heade could have been responding to general ideas in the culture instead of to Darwin explicitly.  The dangerous allure of these flowers and the potential for change in organisms has been frequently compared to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1844 short story “Rappaccini’s Daughter.22 Many of the same themes are there: fears of sexual attraction, of the ability of man or nature to change the nature of a species, and the simultaneous fascination and repulsion of the exotic.  The ideas were already there in the culture, simmering, so to speak.


Suggested Activities:


Read “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” compare Heade’s early and later hummingbird paintings, and discuss how evolution and sexual selection as these influenced Victorian culture.  These themes can even be traced to Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence (written in the 1920s about the culture of the 1870s) as well as to other writings during and about the Victorian era.



1. Judith Pascoe,  The Hummingbird Cabinet, A Rare and Curious History of Romantic Collections, (Ithica, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006), 52.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid., 34- 42.

4. Ibid., 34.

5. Ibid., 38.

6. Jane  Munro,  “‘More Like a Work of Art Than of Nature’: Darwin, Beauty and Sexual Selection,” Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science, and the Visual Arts, Edited by Diana Donald and Jane Munro, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 253-291, 260.

7. Pascoe, 34.

8. from Dickens “The Tresses of the Day Star” Household Words, no. 65 (1851): 65 qtd. in Pascoe, 36.

9. Munro, 258.

10. from Gould’s Introduction to the Trochildae 12,13 qtd in Pascoe, 43.

11. Christopher  Benfey, A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade, (New York : Penguin Press, 2008), 82.

12. Ibid., 93.

13. Ibid.,  96-97.

14. Munro, 257, 254-5.

15. Ibid., 256

16.  Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr.,  Martin Johnson Heade, (Boston : Museum of Fine Arts, 1999), 92.

17. Ibid, 91.

18. Tatiana Holway,  The Flower of Empire, An Amazonian Water Lily, the Quest to Make it Bloom, and the World It Created, (New York: Oxford University, Press, 2013), 65.

19. Stebbins, 93.

20. Benfey, 185.

21. Sanders, Robert. “Hummingbird Evolution Soared after They Invaded South America 22 Million Years Ago.”  UC Berkeley News Center.  Last modified April 3, 2014. http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2014/04/03/hummingbird-evolution-soared-after-invading-south-america-22-million-years-ago/

22. Stebbins, 91 and Benfey, 140


Arkansas Frameworks

Strand: Reading

Standard 10: Variety of Text

Students shall read, examine, and respond to a wide range of texts for a variety of purposes.  Literary and Content Prose.

• R.10.12.17: Read a variety of literary and content prose including selections from American, British, and/or world literature.

• R.10.12.18: Evaluate the influence of historical context on the form, style, and point of view of written works from history or literature

• R.10.12.20: Evaluate an author’s use of literary devices


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