Excerpt from an Unsent Letter
to Mrs. Laura Webb, Regarding
Ruby Throat of North America (1865)
-From the American Artist Martin Johnson Heade,
London, July 7, 1865
Thus, my project winds to a failed close.
The stones with which I proposed to lithograph
the brilliant colors of the Brazilian hummers
will not hold the various inks––cannot fairly represent
the vibrant blues, the fire-struck greens, etc.,
of the birds I painted during my sojourn in Brazil.
Each day I began in fresh hope, walking
along the Thames toward the printers.
Each afternoon, atop the press or inspecting proofs,
I grew more despondent by the hour.
I returned at dusk to my studio in Kensington,
decanted a glass of claret, and, sketching,
working on through the course of a fortnight,
have painted a pair of North American ruby throats;
the hummingbirds you would have known as a child.
The female, a delicate green, with pale underbelly,
is perched upon the branch of a blooming apple tree,
the petals below bursting into variable pinks.
Above her, and on the branch where she rests, the stems
are just coming into bud. The male, slightly elevated
on the right, watches her; his throat, his thorax,
that wild rubious red, his back and wings,
a vibrant green, a color remembered in the leaves
of the apple tree, suggested again in the mix of blue
sky and the yellowish-gold of the clouds.
The hills are rounded––I mean them to speak
of Vermont or upstate New York––
of America, in any event.
The nest is empty and the birds’ situation––
the green hills, the leaves of the apple tree,
the empty nest and the vibrant pink blooms,
the near-buds––speak to a new beginning.
Dare one say, a new love.
Across the great Atlantic, separated
as we are by your marriage, by convention
and the expectations of our times, made bold,
perhaps, by this wine, I have a confession.
During my stay at Petropolis, there,
at the summer house kept by your husband
in the mountains above Rio, you encouraged me
to visit without invitation, to depart from
the formalities of American life, in the fashion
of that place. And so, I would come to your home
unannounced, joining you for breakfast, or for tea
in the late afternoons. One morning, I circled
to the garden, and found you without servants,
bathing in the pool formed by the mountain stream.
You did not see or hear me; of this I am certain.
Laura, I am a painter, and seeing your lovely form:
your dark hair let down, your breasts, your sex
as you left that pool; the music–– of water as it spilled over
the slight dam of the rocks, even, I imagined, of
your breathing––or was it the quiet humming of a song
as you dried yourself and reached for your robe?––
I did not look away. I have thought of this often;
am artist enough to contemplate the subject
fortune presented to me, gentleman enough to blush
as I write this, as the male ruby’s throat blushes,
in the painting I will post, before leaving this place.