Martin Johnson Heade paintings

Sharon Lorenzo’s Ninth Painting Profile

I chose this lovely work by American artist Martin Johnson Heade from the collection of 63,000 works at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH). It bridges the gap between MFAH’s stellar Pre-Columbian art and its modern Latin American holdings as a work made by Heade after numerous trips to Central and South America. Born in Lumberville, Pennsylvania as the son of a storekeeper, Heade studied with a folk art specialist, Edward Hicks. He then had his own work shown at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1841. His graceful handling of still life subject matter also got him into the National Academy of Design in New York in 1843. Here we can see the magnolia in various states of blossom as well as a bit of vulnerability to a fungus which has attacked a lower leaf . The soft velvet mirrors the smooth texture of each gracious piece of the opening flower which Heade saw in abundance during this visits to Central and South America. He is known as a “travel artist”, bringing his ideas from other regions to his palette.

Martin Johnson Heade 1819-1904

Before marrying and settling in Saint Augustine, Florida, Heade made three trips to Central and South America: Brazil in 1863, Nicaragua in 1866 and Colombia, Panama and Jamaica in 1870. Here he saw the luscious flora and fauna which made him famous with his subsequent paintings. Additionally he was a disciple of Frederic Church whose definitive work, Heart of the Andes, Heade had seen in New York in 1859. Early explorers to this part of the world arrived by boat and often trekked over lots of territory on horseback or in open carriages.

Frederic Church – Heart of the Andes 1859 – Metropolitan Museum of Art

First building by William Watson, 1924

The Museum of Fine Arts is an institution which began in 1900 with a classical building by William Watson and has grown with numerous additions to its campus plan ever since. After the direction of Peter Marzio for 28 years, Gary Tinterow was hired to run this institution by chairman Richard Kinder, who was thrilled to find a former Houstonian.

Gary Tinterow, MFAH director 2017

Gary had worked for 28 years as the curator of European modern art at the Metropolitan Museum. Trained at Brandeis and Harvard Universities after growing up in Houston, Gary completed the management course through the Center for Curatorial Leadership at Columbia Business School as well. He arrived to find a one billion dollar endowment in place at the MFAH with an active curatorial team and engaged board of directors. A new building is in the works near the central downtown campus adding to the mix of its art school and two house museums of European and American decorative arts at the Rienzi and Bayou Bend locations. The entire MFAH compound is the largest fine arts complex in the American southwestern region.


Beck Building by Rafael Moneo, 2000

The work of Heade is a link between the treasures in the MFAH collection from the Pre-Columbian world to Latin American art of the present day.

Earthenware figurine 1500- 300 BC, 17 inches, Olmec civilization

The early works were brought to the Museum as gifts from its former chairman, Alfred Glassell. A varsity fisherman, he often caught his prizes in his boat which left the Houston ship channel to explore the waters off the coast of Mexico and South America. When he went ashore, he became fascinated by the local wares, and brought items such as this Olmec figurine to the Museum before the international accord of UNESCO 1970 disallowed works to be imported without specific permission from the countries of origin. Scholars have examined works like this for evidence of frontal manipulation of the cranium as well as birth defects, causing childhood obesity and retardation. The seemingly oriental characteristics in the face also have launched discussions of possible trans-pacific contact between Asia and South America centuries before European discoveries.

With the leadership of curator, Mari Carmen Ramirez, a noted scholar in the field of Latin American modernism, the MFAH has become the home for an initiative called the ICAA – International Center for the Study of the Arts of the Americas. Numerous artists have donated their art as well as diaries and preparatory materials to allow scholars to gather in Houston for detailed study. Mari Carmen is a diva in this field and her group known as the Maecenas has donated modern Latin American works such as this one by Argentinian artist, Alejandro Xul Solar, to the MFAH collection from a gala auction evening in 2005. Solar named it Jefa, a Spanish word for patroness, mimicking this feminine icon as a figure of beauty.

Alejandro Xul Solar 1887- 1963   Jefa – Patroness

The MFAH is a treasury of art works which welcomes visitors from far and near in Houston, Texas. There is something there for all ages to enjoy. From Olmec to Martin Johnson Heade and Xul Solar, there is every aspect of the arts of Latin America in the collection for art lovers to savor.

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Header Graphic –
Magnolias on Gold Velvet Cloth, 1888-1890 oil on canvas