In this acutely observed still life, Martin Johnson Heade depicts five magnolias in various stages of blossom. The golden glow of the background and of the plush velvet sets off the various qualities of the flower: the delicate, smooth petals in creamy white; the rough stems; and the waxy finish of the leaves, one of which has been affected by a fungus.
Born in Pennsylvania to a prosperous farming family, Heade spent his early years hunting, fishing, and learning to love nature—a passion that led him to paint in landscape and still life more than other genres. Even in an age of peripatetic artists, he was more widely traveled than most, living variously in Europe and America, and traveling to South America on three occasions.
Heade moved in 1883 to Florida, where flourishing tropical flowers like magnolias both encouraged his interest in natural history and appealed to him artistically. He repeatedly painted magnolias, creating compositions that are infinitely varied and show evidence of various alterations that he made while painting. The subtle shifts within his work as a whole account in part for Heade’s appeal to modern sensibilities. Although Heade's work received only limited artistic acclaim during his lifetime, his paintings were “rediscovered” in the 1940s, and he has since evolved into an undisputed modern American master.