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Henry Tuckerman in his Book of the Artists published in 1867 wrote that the love of travel was strong within Heade and that "he meditates another trip to South America." The historian was referring to Heade's journey to Brazil in 1863-1864 to study the hummingbirds of that country, and his proposed sojourn to Nicaragua in 1866. His "pictures of tropical scenery have attracted much attention", Tuckerman noted, one of which, recording faithfully the vegetation and atmosphere of South American, received "high encomium on the part of the returned Amazon explorers-Agassiz included."
Heade's decision to journey to Nicaragua was probably inspired by Ephraim George Squier's Nicaragua; Its People, Scenery, Monuments and the Proposed Interoceanic Canal, first published in 1852, which despite its prosaic title, often described the country's paradisiac beauty with effusive rapture: "The scenery became, if possibly, more beautiful than before. I never wearied in gazing upon the dense masses of foliage that literally embowered the river, and which, in the slanting light, produced those magical effects of shadow on water, which the painter delights to represent." In a letter written to John Russell Bartlett, 29 June 1866, after arriving in Greytown, Nicaragua, Heade expressed his anticipation in traveling across the country: "They say its (Virgin Bay) a much more pleasant place than this, no mosquitoes. From there its [sic] only 14 miles across to the Pacific." But Heade was disappointed with his experience, "I did not find such a country as I had reason to expect from Squiers account of it", he wrote, "and thought it useless to waste much time there [...] I did not travel much -I went to Virgin Bay and from there to Granada by the lake steamer. I stayed there two weeks and took a mule ride to Massaya [sic]. This is as far as I cared to go."
Because of Heade's disappointment, few paintings and drawings resulted from his trip. One canvas, which was exhibited at the National Academy of Design in 1867, Lagoon in Nicaragua (unlocated), must have been similar to the Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza painting. It was dismissed by the reviewer of the Round Table who wrote that the painting "has miasma enough about it to induce low fevers in the gallery."
But it caught the attention of Mark Twain who had returned from his own visit to Nicaragua less than a year after Heade's. Twain's description, although of the Heade's earlier painting, closely matches Sunrise in Nicaragua: "There was a dreamy tropical scene-a wooded island in the centre of a glassy lake bordered by an impenetrable jungle of trees all woven together with vines and hung with drooping garlands of flowers-the still lake pictured all over with the reflected beauty of the shores-two lonely birds winging their way to the further side, where glassy lawns, and mossy rocks, and a wilderness of tinted foliage, were sleeping in a purple mist."
Heade's haze-laden painting, with the sun barely breaking through the atmosphere, evokes the mysterious, sultry climate of Central America, "fairy harbours fringed with swinging garlands; and weird grottoes whose twilight depth the eye might not pierce", Twain wrote describing the country. Only the single sailing vessel on the water hints at the presence of man. It is possible, as Theodore E. Stebbins has suggested, that Heade's Nicaraguan paintings, such as Sunrise in Nicaragua, may have influenced the late South American landscapes of his friend, Frederic E. Church. Church's late paintings of the tropics present more murky, generalised views, and "it is difficult to know", Stebbins writes, "whether Church's stylistic change came about because of his own increasing pessimism or whether Heade, in a turnabout, may have begun to influence him."
Kenneth W. Maddox