Fitz Henry Lane was a disabled sailmaker’s son from Gloucester, Mass., who painted signs and fire screens and seascapes on canvas. Those paintings sold for $100 apiece, $500 at most.
Frederic Church, two decades younger, was one of the most celebrated artists of his day. He painted monumental scenes of nature, wild, rugged, uninhabited landscapes. His paintings sold for $5,000 and as much as $10,000.
Lane and Church both painted coastal Maine, accessible to mid-19th century landscape artists. They came to Mount Desert Island to capture the grandeur of nature on canvas for their wealthy patrons.
Church painted the Maine his patrons wanted to see— an untamed wilderness, according to. Margaret Markle Lovell, author of Painting the Inhabited Landscape: Fitz H. Lane and the Global Reach of Antebellum America. So did the other painters in Church’s milieu – the Hudson River School of Art.
The image of raw, uninhabited nature “was a powerful fiction in the making and selling of pictures,” said Lovell, in a talk sponsored by the Farnsworth Art Museum in September 2023
Lane, however, went in a different direction. He saw plenty of people along the coast and plenty of commercial activity. As a Gloucester native, he knew thousands of men made their living clearcutting that untamed landscape and fishing that empty marinescape. Hundreds of humble schooners made as many as 17 trips a year hauling lumber, hay and granite. Hundreds more made several trips a year to fish for cod in the Grand and Georges Banks.
So it’s no surprise that Lane’s painting of Mount Desert Island includes a coasting schooner hauling lumber from the Maine woods.
These days Fitz Henry Lane’s paintings sell for more than Church’s. His Manchester Harbor (with boats and people) sold for $5.5 million in 2004. (See it here.) Church’s record currently stands at $3.2 million for Twilight in the Wilderness, sold in 2011.
Here are seven more fun facts about Fitz Henry Lane.
1. For the longest time no one figured out his name was Fitz Henry Lane.
He was born Nathaniel Rogers Lane in 1804, but in 1831 had his name legally changed. According to the National Gallery of Art, his middle name began to appear as “Hugh,” and he was widely known as Fitz Hugh Lane. Then archival research in 2004-2005 made it clear his name was Fitz Henry Lane. Why he changed it remains a mystery.
2. Many of the Gloucester scenes he painted can be experienced today.
Lane didn’t have an international reputation, like Church. Instead, he had local fame. Many Cape Ann residents commissioned his works and passed them down through the generations. Local families then donated the paintings to the Cape Ann Museum along with furnishings. As the Museum points out, “much of Gloucester’s historic waterfront and many of the natural vistas and landmarks that Lane painted have been preserved and can be re-experienced today.” His stone house still overlooks the harbor.
3. Fitz Henry Lane paintings aren’t just pretty landscapes.
They’re a record of maritime commerce in the northeast during the mid-19th century. Lane knew what ships carried, where they came from and where they were headed. And he understood where people fit into the coastal economy.
Lovell, for example, pointed out that his painting Castine From Fort George depicts the Maine town as a place of serene prosperity. It was, in fact, the richest town in Maine at the time. In the foreground, men cut hay, which would feed the oxen that hauled logs from the lumber camps. Lane also included three women, two Euro-Americans buying a basket from a Penobscot. The native American baskets were much prized and used. Lane would have known how the Penobscots fit into the local economy from his experience with them in Gloucester and on his visits to Castine, Lovell said.
Maritime historians find his work helpful in their research, according to Erik Ronnberg, Jr., maritime curator at the Cape Ann Museum.
4. Many of his patrons made their money through shipping.
People who’d acquired great wealth through maritime trade wanted to see ships and warehouses, not empty landscapes. Robert Bennet Forbes, for example, got rich as a sea captain in the China trade. He commissioned Lane to paint the frontispiece for a book he wrote. In it, Forbes had described a 17-day voyage he took to Ireland on a ship carrying food to famine victims.
Sidney Mason, a Gloucester native who made it rich in shipping, bought several Lane paintings. Mason has earned credit for modernizing Puerto Rico, and he commissioned Lane to paint a series of seascapes from his career, including Gloucester, San Juan and New York.
Charlotte Cushman proved the exception. She was not a shipping merchant but a cross-dressing actress quite famous in her day. She bought two Fitz Henry Lane paintings. But then she did take them on a ship to Europe, according to a local newspaper.
5. Fitz Henry Lane once painted himself as a ragged schooner.
In his painting Salem Harbor he depicts a magnificent clipper ship with every snow-white sail unfurled. Nearby floats a small schooner, a humble schooner like the thousands that hauled lumber and granite from Canada and Maine to Boston and New York. His brownish, discolored sails bear his initials in red. One wonders: Does the clipper ship represent Frederic Church?
6. Eating a poisonous weed caused his lameness.
A Gloucester minister (and a female one at that) named Ada C. Bowles published her memories of Fitz Henry Lane. In it, she wrote, “As understood, his disablement was the result of eating, as a boy, of the poisonous weed, ‘Apple-of-Peru,’ so called in my childhood, and always associated with the tragedy of the artist’s life. …[It] is well known now as Thorn-apple (Datura Stramonium) from which children are still warned, in the name of the mischief which it brought upon Gloucester’s most famous artist.”
Or maybe he contracted polio.
Bowles, who took lessons from Lane, credits his “crippled condition” for his devotion to his art. Perhaps she had a point. Historians view his paintings as astonishingly detailed and accurate. He knew all kinds of vessels, their size and shape, the length of their masts and their complex rigging systems.
7. He was rediscovered by a colorful opera singer who married a rich, much older woman.
After Lane died, the French Impressionists eclipsed him in popularity. Collectors and critics forgot all about him, until Maxim Karolik came along. Karolk, a Russian-Jewish opera singer, married a wealthy Brahmin, Caroline Codman, twice his age. The couple then went into an art collecting frenzy. They specialized in American art, which they donated to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. After Caroline died in 1948, Maxim continued to collect. He donated more than a dozen Fitz Henry Lane paintings to the museum.
Image: Fitz Henry Lane House By John Phelan – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9587588