There is a statue of a small, thin man in front of the stone house on the small hill that overlooks the coast guard station and Harbor Master’s Office in Gloucester Massachusetts. The wind is blowing; he is sitting on the ground looking intently out over the harbor; he is working on a picture. A pair of crutches lie beside him.
When I inquired I learned that the statue, created by Al Duca, is of the artist Fitz Henry Lane. I knew nothing about Lane then; what I have learned about him since is both intriguing and instructive.
There is a notion of the artist as disengaged from the world, the better to create; as a creature more given to fits of inspiration than days of long hard work; as a creature of genius divorced from the world of commerce. Fitz Henry Lane is one of the many artists who give the lie to this notion. His work and career show the rewards that can spring from hard work, planning, and a willingness to work with and for others, particularly when these are combined with talent, vision and the desire to learn and grow.
Born in Gloucester in 1804 and crippled early in life, Fitz Henry Lane is said to have turned his energies to art while he was still young. He decided to work actively to develop his talent for drawing and painting and his development took a major step forward after he went to Boston, at age twenty-eight, to work in Pendleton’s lithographic establishment, where he could earn, learn and hone his skills among the artists already working there. At about the same time he changed his name, by petition, from Nathaniel Rogers Lane to Fitz Henry Lane, the name he was to become famous under.
Pendletons was a successful and growing lithographic firm, where talent was both needed and nurtured. Here Lane could develop his grasp of the skills basic to lithographic work, refining his understanding and use of proportion, perspective, depth, tonality and balance as he trained with and learned from the more experienced and knowledgeable artists he worked with. It was a good apprenticeship in the skills an artist needed. From all accounts he worked hard and well and took full advantage of the opportunities he found, not least of which was the opportunity to become known to and work for well-off merchants and ship-owners. They had the money to comission or buy and the desire to own the kind of richly detailed and beautiful marine paintings Fitz Henry Lane created.
By the time he returned to live and work in Gloucester he was already recognized for the accuracy, detail and attractiveness of his work. He continued to work with his customers in Boston, even as his surroundings inspired him to create more paintings. His work continued to develop and evolve, from the many details of his early lithographs and paintings to the increasing spareness, luminosity and focus on the essentials of a scene in his later work, where subtle use of colour and composition creates scenes suffused with light and bathed in delicate hues. I find these paintings hauntingly beautiful.
Below are links to a few of Fitz Henry Lane’s pictures. They will open in a new window – just close it to come back here.
“The Burning of the Packet Ship ‘Boston,’” 1830, is an early watercolor which feels tighter and more contained than his later work. Image from the Cape Ann Historical Museum.
In “Gloucester Harbor from Rocky Neck”, 1844, the sky overreaches the detailed landscape below. This image from the Cape Ann Historical Museum Collection.
In “Stage Fort Across Gloucester Harbor”, 1862, the sky glows with light. In the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art
“View of Coffin’s Beach”, 1862, creates a sense of space and open horizons. In the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.