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Gloucester's Own: Fitz Henry Lane

Fitz Henry Lane (1804–1865) was a Cape Ann artist, printmaker and world-renowned American marine painter. With his subtle use of gleaming light, Lane has become well-known for the style later scholars called Luminism. The Cape Ann Museum's unparalleled collection of Lane’s work includes 40 paintings, a rare watercolor (his first known work, painted in 1830) and 100 drawings, plus lithographic town views. In 2015, the Museum will launch Fitz Henry Lane Onlinea research tool featuring new information about Lane's works and rich historical and archival material related to his pictures and the subjects he depicted.

Fitz Henry Lane, 1865. Carte de Visite. Photo: J. W. Black, Boston.Fitz Henry Lane or Fitz Hugh Lane?

Born in Gloucester on December 19, 1804, Nathaniel Rogers Lane did not stay Nathaniel for long. It has been generally accepted that he changed his name to Fitz Hugh Lane at some point, but no one knew why. In 2004, researchers in Gloucester found the 1831 letter he sent to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts requesting a name change, not to Fitz Hugh Lane but to Fitz Henry Lane. His petition was granted, but why he did it is still a mystery.

Artistic Beginnings

Gloucester during Lane's lifetime was an industrious, flourishing community. The population was growing and diversifying, ships of all sizes and designs were plying the waters, and new neighborhoods were springing up across the landscape. Much of this activity is reflected in Lane's artwork, particularly the hustle and bustle of the working waterfront.

Lane's father, Jonathan Dennison Lane, was a sailmaker, and his mother, Sarah Haskell Lane, worked at home. The Lane family had first come to Cape Ann in the very early 1700s, receiving a lot in the land on the north side of the Cape in the area now known as Lanesville.

Though blessed with a natural talent, Fitz Henry Lane's childhood was not entirely care-free.  Here is a contemporary 19th century account of his beginnings:

At the age of eighteen months, while playing in the yard or garden of his father, he ate some of the seeds of the apple-peru; and was so unfortunate to lose the use of his lower limbs in consequence, owing to late and unskillful medical treatment. He showed in boyhood a talent for drawing and painting; but received no instruction in the rules till he went to Boston, at the age of twenty-eight, to work in Pendleton's lithographic establishment. From that time, his taste and ability were rapidly developed; and after a residence of several years in Boston, he came back to Gloucester with a reputation fully established. Since his return to his native town, he has painted many pictures, all of which have been much admired.

—John J Babson, History of the Town of Gloucester, 1860

The apple-peru Lane presumably ate as a small child may have been the seed or fruit of some member of the highly poisonous nightshade family. Regardless of the cause of his disability, Lane used crutches for the rest of his life.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, his handicap, Fitz Henry Lane pursued an early interest in art. In 1832 he apprenticed himself to the Boston lithographer William S. Pendleton. During his tenure there, Lane produced a variety of work including panoramic views, advertisements, trade cards, signs and sheet music illustrations.

Cape Ann Paintings

After establishing himself as a printmaker and painter in Boston, Fitz Henry Lane returned to Gloucester in 1847 to concentrate on painting. Two years later he purchased a piece of land at the crest of Duncan's Point with a commanding view of Gloucester Harbor. There he designed and built a dramatic seven-gabled, granite house and studio with the help of his brother-in-law. From his studio on the top floor of the house, Lane enjoyed sweeping views of Gloucester and its harbor filled with schooners and other vessels.

It was in his studio that Fitz Henry Lane created works in oil based on his on-site drawings. He relied on the pencil sketches to remember what he had seen, but once in the studio he transformed the drawings into paintings that juxtaposed the mundane and the transcendent.

As one of a select group of American marine painters who grew up by the sea, Lane was uniquely able to show the bustling life of a port. In his Cape Ann marine paintings, he expertly renders the commerce of the harbor, the precisely correct rigging of the ships and the building profile of the town without sacrificing his distinctive luminous, lyrical vision. Lane's house still stands and is just a two-block walk from the Museum.

Work with Mary Blood Mellen

Mary Blood Mellen (1819-1886). “Coast of Maine,” c1850s. Oil on canvas. Gift of John Wilmerding, 1978.One of Fitz Henry Lane's few known students, Mary Blood Mellen, was born in 1817 and made her way to Gloucester in the 1850s. She and Lane often painted together, and Mellen sometimes made copies of his work. Not surprisingly, her style and subjects were similar to Lane's. The Museum's Coast of Maine (1850s) is a rare example of collaboration between the teacher and student. Another painting in the Museum's collection, Field Beach (Stage Fort Park, 1850s), is Mellen's version of a scene also painted by Lane—a pastoral seaside landscape with cows.

Relationship with Joseph Stevens, Jr.

Fitz Henry Lane's closest friend in Gloucester was Joseph Stevens, Jr. The relationship with the Stevens family was very important to the artist. In his 1971 book Fitz Hugh Lane, John Wilmerding introduces the family as follows:

The Stevens were an old Gloucester family; Joseph, Jr. managed the family's dry goods business there. Interested in cultural and civic affairs, he was active in behalf of the American Art-Union, the Western Art Union and the local Lyceum movement. In Gloucester, he often rowed Lane out into the harbor, as he later did in the small coves of Maine. On one occasion, Lane 'was hoisted up by some contrivance to the mast-head of a vessel lying in the harbor in order that he might get some particular perspective that he wished to have."

Later Life

After his return to Gloucester, Fitz Henry Lane's reputation as a painter and marine artist continued to grow. Individuals commissioned him to do seascapes and ship portraits. The major annual exhibitions at the Boston Athenaeum and the American Art Union in New York accepted his paintings. Boston and Gloucester newspapers championed his work, and an appreciative local following provided eager buyers.

On August 14, 1865, Lane died at home with his close friend, Joseph Stevens, at his bedside. Stevens' devotion to Lane continued long after the artist's death. He was the executor of Lane’s estate and had Lane buried in the Stevens' family plot in Gloucester's Oak Grove Cemetery. (Lane's grave is marked by a plaque provided by the Cape Ann Historical Association (now the Cape Ann Museum) in 1960.) Stevens also organized Lane's drawings and added notes on places, dates, their travels together and the paintings done from the drawings.