Dubbed the "grandson of Millet and Courbet" by Zola, Jules Bastien-Lepage specialised in agricultural scenes which were a far remove from the affected pastoral scenes that cluttered the Salon. Zola was excited by Hay Making, seeing it as the masterpiece of naturalism in painting.
Indeed it is a far cry from Millet's Rest. The artist has powerfully captured the epic of the French countryside and depicted the peasants in their simplicity and despondency: the young woman sitting in the foreground is haggard with weariness. The scene is inspired by a poem:
"The reaper stretched out on his bed of fresh grass
Sleeps with clenched fists while
The tedder, faint and fuddled, tanned by the sun,
Sits vacantly dreaming beside him [...]. "
The painting clearly exceeds the scope of this mild text and was indeed very popular at the 1878 Salon. The composition is daringly photographic: the horizon is unusually high, allowing the hay "like a very pale yellow cloth shot with silver" to fill the main part of the canvas. The effects of accelerated perspective, the light palette, and close framing of the figures are signs of modernity within the naturalist approach.