The meandering tidal streams, flat landscape, and conical haystacks of the salt marshes of the northeast became the primary subject of Martin Johnson Heade’s paintings from 1859 on. Here he captures the change in light and atmosphere as the sun breaks through heavy haze to spotlight one of the haystacks. Though no humans are present, their impact on the land is felt in the fence in the foreground, the grazing cattle, and the haystacks themselves.
Marsh grass grew naturally without cultivation, but cutting it and gathering it into large stacks of coarse salt hay was labor-intensive. Valuable for its versatility, salt hay was used for everything from packing material to making butcher paper. Heade’s painting pays tribute both to the efforts of those who harvested this unusual crop and to the unique beauty of this landscape that is part wilderness and part farmland.