The rising status of Dewey in the American art world, on a par with Dwight Tryon, was heralded by the inclusion of four of his landscapes at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, two owned and lent by William T. Evans. "The Return of the Hayboats" was one of the hits of the Fair. The painting shows Dewey moving beyond his 1880s style of Aesthetic Tonalism to a more broadly brushed and expressive factor- though carefully modulated by strict horizontal patterns- creating an overall bluish green tonal scrim of atmosphere which saturates and unites the scene in one palpitating vision.
Dewey's triumph as an artist was to get an effective balance between amorphous form and just enough hard edged detail to anchor the composition, so that the large proportions, the character of the masses and the balance of the values, have a solidity that prevents the whole from deteriorating into mushy vapidity. Like Tryon, Dewey's many years of drawing from the figure and casts, both in the academy school and in Paris with Carolus-Duran, grounded the artist's feel for proportion and mass, even as his art moved in the direction of the more dreamy Expressive Tonalsim. "The Return of the Hayboats" achieves this exquisite equipoise, not just by the elucidation of a few details emerging out of the morning mist, but by virtue of the crisp paint handling, in which even the merging of variegated tones is executed with finesse and painterly touches that create and retain visual interest, while forming lush surface textures that are a pleasure in the their own right. They achievement was noted in a New York Times review of his work:
Perhaps of all the landcapists in the United States rooms Charles Melville Dewey shows the most interesting canvases, as indicating a departure as individual and as valuable as that of the Barbizon painters. In these calm and lovely stretches of land and water, in this union of truth and mystery, of exquisite drawing and atmospheric breadth, of tender values and luminous color, is found an effort toward the beauty and poetry of nature that is neither hysterical nor sentimental, crude nor brutal, but quiet, sane and intense, with the promise of becoming an enduring element in American art."
The comparison with Monet, especially the London nocturnes of 1903, is inevitable; though Dewey's precise and controlled horizontal factor retains the academic probity, the "quiet, sane and intense" aspect noted in the Times review. Monet was seeking the monetary expression of hazy light; Dewey an internalized memory of an enduring and timeless moment of rapture. At the height of the Impressionist fervor in American art, Dewey provided an alternate Tonalist mode, much in keeping with Whistler's Nocturenes then exhibited at Chicago.
"The Return of the Hayboats," first exhibited at the Society of American Artists in 1891, was shown- and highly praised- at the Munich International Exhibition of 1895, exhibited by Evans at the Lotos Club in 1899, sold by Evans in 1900, included in the Comparative Exhibition of Native and Foreign Art, 1904 and exhibited again the Lotos Club in 1894 and 18913 as part of the Rhoades Collection. In 1894, Charles deKay described Mr. Rhoades' taste as running ...
"to the tonal work of our landscapists… so that a stroll about the galleries is a continuous appeal to the sense of pleasure given by rich low ones or by delicate vibrations of color… here is Charles Melville Dewey's masterpiece, the dreamy "Return of the Hayboats."
In 1914, the Times valued the painting as reiterating…
"Dewey's importance in the group by which American painting will be known to the long future… No one who has ridden on one of those slow moving barges with the movement of the tide will be insensitive to the artist's subtle realization of this almost imperceptible progress of the loaded boat, as well as the deep serenity of the sky and water on a still day."