While many of his contemporaries sought subject matter in the dramatic mountain vistas and seaside cliffs of the American landscape, Martin Johnson Heade instead explored the presence of the sublime to be found in the pristine, open expanses of nature’s marshlands. A luminist view of this favored subject, Haystack at Sunset stunningly captures the majesty that Heade uniquely recognized within the undisturbed wetlands along the nation’s coastlines.
Heade’s favorite marshes were those in Newbury and Newburyport, Massachusetts, which first captured his attention around 1860. However, he also depicted marshes and meadows in Florida and throughout New England, including Connecticut, Rhode Island and, from the 1870s onward, New Jersey. He depicted the marshes at different times of day and under different atmospheric conditions and seasons, reflecting a popular theme of the passage of time. As John Howat writes, “While artists such as Cole and Cropsey were attracted to monumental subjects such as Niagara Falls or more ruggedly inspired locales such as the Catskills, Heade was enamored with the quiet, contemplative quality of marshlands found along the eastern seaboard…One reason may be that the Adirondack and White Mountains, Lake George, and the Newport beaches were becoming increasingly popular as tourist attractions, but marshes like Newburyport’s still had much of the quality of wilderness that first attracted Hudson River School painters. Marshes are beyond human control: the grass grows without cultivation and largely unnoticed; even when harvesting is in progress the marshland changes little. Because the grass is high and because no roads lead through the boggy soil, few workers and hardly any onlookers venture there. As in the scenes of the tropics he was then producing, Heade becomes the viewer’s ambassador to a part of the world that few have ever observed.” (American Paradise, New York, 1987, p. 178)
Painted circa 1861-66, Haystack at Sunset invites the viewer to explore this largely untouched landscape, as a rowboat placed in the central foreground provides entry into the scene. As the meandering path of the water widens into the open horizon dotted with sailboats, the glowing orb of the sun setting behind the purple-pink clouds firmly underscores the divinity of the landscape. The veritable mountain of harvested salt hay overwhelms the diminutive worker seen in the distance, visually emphasizing how nature remains unconquered by man in this landscape. A quintessential luminist composition, the dramatic, awesome sky fills two-thirds of the canvas, even as the strong horizontal format and hazy atmospheric perspective create an effect of absolute calm and serenity.
Reflecting on the marsh paintings, Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr. writes that Heade “found a scene that was to enchant him for the rest of his life: a beautiful, changing marsh cut by winding rivers, in some seasons covered with huge haystacks which receded into the distance as far as the eye could see. To the painter the sight must have seemed to be the ultimate drama, a perfect juxtaposition of the pictorial and the moral." (The Life and Works of Martin Johnson Heade, New Haven, Connecticut, 1975, p. 47) With its combination of picturesque composition and ethereal light, Haystack at Sunset beautifully illustrates these qualities of the American marshlands which so captivated Heade throughout his career.