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MARTIN JOHNSON HEADE

VASE OF MIXED FLOWERS, ABOUT 1872

About the Artwork

Today Heade is probably best known for his pictures of orchids [47.1164], magnolias [47.1169], water lilies [47.1165], and other flowers in which he focused on one, two, or three blooms. Painted life-size in a natural setting, their forms are often sexually suggestive. Throughout his life, however, Heade also painted more conventional flower pieces in keeping with contemporary taste. With its simple arrangement of blooms in a delicate vase set on a covered table, Vase of Mixed Flowers typifies those canvases. Though Heade deliberately selected flowers that allowed him to work with different shapes, textures, and colors, the arrangement does not appear contrived, and though the flowers may not be overtly erotic, Heade nonetheless recognized their expressive possibilities. Thus the rose seems to reach upwards and tentatively open its leaves outward, while the stamens shoot out from the fully open leaves of the azalea. Heade probably also chose the flowers with an eye towards their symbolism since he was well aware of the vogue in nineteenth-century America for assigning meanings to various flowers, particularly ones associated with the traits and character of women. Contemporary viewers familiar with the language of flowers might therefore have read the heliotrope and orange blossom as signs of devotion and purity and equated the rose with love. The carnation, on the other hand, conventionally signified disdain and heather indicated solitude—neither of them desirable qualities for women in that period.

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