Heade was the only major American artist of the 19th century to make important contributions in landscape, marine, and still life painting. Virtually all of his still lifes were floral pieces, starting with simple pictures of flowers in vases in the early 1860s and culminating with a splendid series of roses, magnolias, and other flowers spread out on tables covered with velvet cloths. This painting, a prime and much – admired example from the latter series, is considered one of the finest still lifes of Heade's entire career.
In 1883, after a lifetime of restless, uneasy personal relationships, and only modest critical and popular success as an artist in the northeast, Heade married for the first time and settled permanently in Saint Augustine, Florida. There he found his first and only important patron, the oil and railroad magnate Henry Morrison Flagler, who would purchase the artist's works regularly during the 1880s and 1890s. At the age of 64 Heade had at last found personal and professional stability, and the renewed energy and interest in painting evident in his late still lifes, especially the magnolias, may have been inspired by these new circumstances. Certainly works such as Giant Magnolias on a Blue Velvet Cloth, with their striking contrasts of brilliantly lit flowers and leaves set against a dark background, are among the most original still lifes of the 19th century. They are also for many observers strongly sensual, their lush colors, full, curving contours, overall sense of opulence, and implied perfumed scent of the flowers suggestive, perhaps, of female nudes languidly reclining on luxurious couches.
(Text by Franklin Kelly, published in the National Gallery of Art exhibition catalogue, Art for the Nation, 2000)