From coach to canvas, find your true calling like Heade did

September 12, 2004

We may all agree that old age is not for the faint of heart and indeed it springs a few unpleasant surprises at times. However, one of the good things about getting older is that when something piques your curiosity, you can turn to your younger computer-literate friends and ask for help in solving this problem.

Thus, I discovered the story behind one of the new U.S. postage stamps: a lovely white flower on a black background with a man's name hidden in very small print that only an eagle-eyed person could decipher. After a magnifying glass helped me discover the name Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904), I was still in the dark. Was he a painter, a gardener or perhaps a very nice man who was good to his mother? He could have been all those things but it turns out he was an American artist, naturalist and poet.

During the 19th century, Heade became known for his landscapes and still lifes of Brazilian hummingbirds and orchids. In 1883, he moved to Florida and became obsessed with the giant magnolia. In fact, this flower became the chief theme of his later still lifes. The picture on the postage stamp is titled "Giant Magnolias on Blue Velvet Cloth." He obviously spent more energy painting than creating catchy titles. The original painting can be seen in all its glory at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.


But one of the most interesting bits of information I uncovered was that Heade was first educated in "coach" painting by Edward Hicks. Now I thought this must be a style or period of art and thus had to dig into the life of Mr. Hicks (1780-1849). While he was most famous as a Quaker preacher during his lifetime, today Hicks is primarily remembered as a painter. He was a self-taught artist, who started out as a sign painter.

Coach painting is just what it sounds like. Hicks was apprenticed to a carriage maker and decorated coaches as well as tavern signs, tables, chairs, firebacks, fire buckets and decorated coaches as well as tavern signs, tables, chairs, firebacks, fire buckets and chests. However, he moved from this profession to a so-called primitive style of painting. This included portraits of family farms, as well as historical and religious scenes. Hicks' favorite subject and the one he is best known for is "The Peaceable Kingdom," illustrating the passage from the Book of Isaiah: "The wolf shall also dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them." He painted more than 100 versions of this theme. Here is a man who arose every morning and said to his wife, "Today, I think I shall paint the 'Peaceful Kingdom.'"

Remember how Heade ended his days painting the giant magnolia in every pose and background possible. He must have learned this from his coach-painting mentor.

Perhaps Hicks imparted the wisdom of finding what you like to do and then do it over and over and over.

So if you have reached the golden years without discovering your particular "Peaceful Kingdom" or giant magnolia obsession, perhaps you'd better take another look at your life and find something you want to do every morning for the rest of your life.

Personally, I have found breakfast to be absolutely fascinating.

Katherine Orton is a free-lance writer living in Danville.|5/6/04|***

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