Gloucester's Own: Fitz Henry Lane
Fitz Henry Lane (1804–1865) was America’s preeminent marine artist of the mid-19th century, a skilled draftsman, a master of ship’s portraiture, and an unparalleled observer of the world around him. Working in pencil or oil, Lane could render a ship at sea with a precision that satisfied the most discerning vessel owner, and a beauty of Cape Ann’s rocky shore with a skill that evoked the spirituality of Emerson and Thoreau.
With its exhibition of drawings, lithographs and paintings, the Cape Ann Museum celebrates Fitz Henry Lane’s artistic achievements and his enduring portrait of Gloucester and Cape Ann. As a whole, the collection offers a unique opportunity to view a cohesive body of work by a single artist in and of a singular place.
The Early Years
Fitz Henry Lane was born Nathaniel Rogers Lane on December 19, 1804 in Gloucester, a son of sailmaker Jonathan Dennison Lane and Sarah Haskell Lane. His ancestors were among the earliest settlers on Cape Ann, the Lanes originally residing in the village of Lanesville and the Haskells in Gloucester’s West Parish.
Gloucester of Lane’s childhood was a bustling seaport. Since the 1760s, commerce had been concentrating around the Inner Harbor, luring residents from outlying neighborhoods to the waterfront and to maritime-based jobs. Streets had been laid out, and houses, schools, meeting houses and waterfront structures erected. Ships of all sizes and rigs filled the harbor. By the time Nathaniel Rogers Lane was a young man in the 1820s, most of the town’s population lived and worked in Gloucester’s Harbor Village.
Although much research has been done into the narrative of Lane’s early life, few specifics have been documented. It has long been known that his ability to walk was impaired at an early age, leaving him, as a contemporary described it, lame. What it was, however, that precipitated this remains unclear as does exactly how impaired Lane was. Questions also remained about Lane’s formal education, jobs he may or may not have held as a young man and what if any exposure he may have had to art. In 1831, for reasons which are similarly mysterious, Lane petitioned the Massachusetts General Court and was granted permission to change his name from Nathaniel Rogers Lane to Fitz Henry Lane. A year later, at the age of 27, Lane moved from Gloucester to Boston to assume an apprenticeship at Williams S. Pendleton’s lithography firm and to lay the foundations for his career as an artist.
Drawn from Nature & On Stone
Fitz Henry Lane worked at Pendleton’s lithography shop—the longest lived and most successful lithography firm in America—from 1832 to 1837. He then moved on to the firm of Keith and Moore and by 1845 had established his own partnership with J. W. A. Scott. With a natural talent for drawing, Lane excelled in the field of lithography, creating illustrations that appeared on business trade cards, advertisements and sheet music. He also created panoramic views of towns around New England and, on occasion, illustrations for books including John James Babson’s History of the Town of Gloucester, Cape Ann published in 1860.
In 1835, while at Pendleton’s, Lane began work on a drawing that would be transformed into a richly detailed lithographic view of Gloucester Harbor as seen from its eastern shore. The scene encompassed virtually all of Gloucester’s waterfront with wharves and buildings carefully drawn out against a backdrop of sun bursting through the clouds. Clearly intended for the local audience, the work was praised by people on Cape Ann for its extreme accuracy and for its beauty. Perhaps most importantly, it foreshadowed the skill Lane would perfect in coming years of creating works of art which were at once faithful to detail and idealized renderings of tranquility and beauty.
Lane remained immersed in the Boston art scene through the early 1840s, honing his drawing skills and, as he absorbed all he could from artists working around him, turning increasingly to painting. By 1841, confident of his abilities, Lane had a small business card produced advertising himself as a “marine painter.” Shortly thereafter he began exhibiting his paintings at venues around Boston including the American Art-Union and the Boston Athenaeum. By the mid-1840s, Lane was focusing his attention increasingly on his birthplace, preparing to return to Gloucester and concentrate all his talents on painting.
Cape Ann at Mid-Century
Owing to the prosperity of the fishing business last season, and the notoriety which Cape Ann is gaining as a watering place, our little village has presented rather a thriving appearance this spring. Quite a number of dwelling houses have been erected in various places; two or three new wharves have been run out; and many new vessels have been added to our fleet. A slight advance has been made in the value of real estate; and appearances have indicated an increase of business….
—Gloucester Telegraph, June 6, 1846
In the autumn of 1849, already having been back on Cape Ann for a short while, Fitz Henry Lane purchased a piece of property in Gloucester on Duncan’s Point overlooking the Inner Harbor. A granite house with a studio on the top floor was soon erected and the artist (along with his sister and her family) took up residence in 1851. From that site, looking down on Harbor Cove and out over The Fort and Ten Pound Island to the Western Shore, many of Lane’s finest works emerged, masterpieces which captured the prosperity of the town in detail and beauty.
In the years Lane had spent in Boston, Gloucester and Cape Ann had grown and prospered. The coasting trade and foreign trade were both carried on with success making many local merchants and their families wealthy. Similarly, the fishing industry and the granite trade expanded steadily, creating jobs which lured workers to the area and fueled the development of new neighborhoods. And in 1847 when the railroad arrived in Gloucester, linking the town to Boston and beyond, the summer tourist trade took hold. Lane immersed himself in the community, finding subject matter in excess for his paintings and patrons willing and able to purchase his works.
Students & Followers
While Fitz Henry Lane dominated Cape Ann’s art scene of the mid-19th century, other artists, trained and untrained, were also working in the area and were influenced and inspired by Lane’s success. While none achieved the notoriety Lane did, many have come to be recognized as accomplished artists in their own right.
Foremost among the artists working on Cape Ann during the early stages of Lane’s career were itinerant painters Susannah Paine and Alfred J. Wiggin who made their way to Cape Ann during the 1830s and the 1840s, respectively. Paine is known for her portraits while Wiggin broadened his repertoire to include landscapes. During the 1850s and 1860s, Gloucester-born cousins D. Jerome Elwell and Kilby W. Elwell appeared on the scene, gravitating towards many of the locales painted by Lane including Stage Fort, the Western Shore and Gloucester’s Inner Harbor. Following his service in the Civil War, Addison Center took up painting, producing portraits and still lifes, and Stephen Salisbury Tuckerman who hailed from Boston, made Gloucester his home in the late 1860s. While many of these individuals and others were clearly influenced by Lane just one is known to have been a close associate and confidant, Mary Blood Mellen.
In recent years, Mary Blood Mellen has emerged as one of the most talented artists to work on Cape Ann in the years immediately preceding the Civil War. Born in Vermont and raised in Sterling, Massachusetts, Mellen attended a girls’ academy where she studied the art of painting in watercolor. The circumstances under which she and Lane met remain uncertain; however, by the 1850s they knew each other and Mellen would soon begin using Lane’s drawings and paintings as the basis for her own works. Like many women artists of her generation, Mellen was a copyist and a growing body of evidence indicates that Lane gave his prodigious student free access to his works. While evocative of Lane’s paintings, Mellen’s exhibit her own distinct palette, treatment of space and level of detail.
Currents of the Universal Being Circulate Through Me
Standing on the bare ground—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson (Nature, 1836)
Fitz Henry Lane’s life played out during a complex and rapidly changing period in American history. Working in relative isolation on Cape Ann, yet against a backdrop of rising social reform movements, increasing industrialization and simmering conflict between federal and states’ rights, Lane pursued his art diligently during the 1850s turning out a steady flow of refined paintings. In recent years, much has been written about the underlying meaning of Lane’s work during this time, particularly when examined against the national scene. Were his paintings a reaction to the changing world? Was he influenced by the writings of the time? Were works done in the late 1850s a reaction to changes taking place around him, to the coming of the Civil War? Many questions await further exploration and will serve to broaden our understanding of Lane’s art. One of the most thought provoking of these is Lane’s connections to New England transcendentalist thinking of the day and its affect on his artwork.
When Lane returned to Cape Ann he immersed himself in the community, taking an active role in civic and cultural events including Independence Day celebrations, tableaux organized in connection with library festivals and other public happenings around Gloucester. Lane also engaged himself in the Gloucester Lyceum, becoming a member in the mid-1840s and serving as a director in 1849, 1851, 1852 and 1858. It is through his involvement in the Lyceum that Lane had the opportunity for direct contact with transcendentalists. Organized in 1830 to promote “useful knowledge and the advancement of popular education,” the Gloucester Lyceum hosted numerous lecturers during Lane’s tenure as a director, men who spoke on a range of topics from Spirituality and education reform, to astronomy and “the Yankee character.” Chief among them were essayists Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, the most eloquent exponents of transcendentalism — the idea that our understanding of the world comes through individual intuition and imagination and that our knowledge transcends what we can actually see or hear or touch. How these men and their musings affected Lane is impossible to know for certain. However, the parallels between their thoughts and Lane’s paintings are readily apparent particularly in canvases capturing sparse wide open vistas which invite us to view them as a spiritual experience.
Fitz Henry Lane remained devoted to painting throughout his life, creating some of his finest works in his final years. He continued to turn again and again to his drawings for subject matter often using them to create two, three sometimes four paintings of the same scene for various customers. Working in his studio overlooking Gloucester Harbor, Lane made subtle changes and refinements to each composition, including the fading light of sunset, the suggestion of an approaching storm or the hull of a wrecked ship to add variety and interest to his paintings. Narrative detail disappeared from his canvases as time passed, often replaced with open space landscapes. In addition to turning to earlier drawings, Lane also continued to seek out new compositions, making sketching excursions to East Gloucester in August 1861 to view the newly completed lighthouses on Thacher Island and to Old Neck Beach in Manchester and Folly Cove in Gloucester late in 1864 just months before his death.
Throughout his life, Fitz Henry Lane remained a well known and highly regarded member of the Gloucester community. The local newspaper regularly sent representatives to visit his studio to report on paintings in progress. Their observations were recorded at length in the paper, describing in high emotion and great detail the painting Lane had on his easel. A news account rarely concluded without the writer urging readers to make their own visits to Lane and to consider purchasing works. Below is an excerpt from one such article which appeared in the Cape Ann Weekly Advertiser on February 8, 1861, a piece which is evocative of the high esteem in which Lane was held by all.
We visited the studio of Mr. Fitz H. Lane a few days since, and spent an hour very pleasantly in viewing the paintings of this talented artist. There are quite a number of beautiful pictures now on exhibition among which is a spirited picture of an “Outward Bound Ship”; there is an air of life about this painting which characterized the works of this artist, and in gazing upon it the ship seems imbued with motion and with a slight stretch of the imagination we can fancy that we hear the rippling of the water under her bow, so natural is the scene. It is a master piece….”