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Catalog entry

inv. 46
New York Harbor
c. 1855
Oil on canvas
36 x 60 1/4 in. (91.4 x 153 cm)
Signed and dated lower right: Fitz H Lane. / 185[...]


New York Harbor at mid-nineteenth century was the undisputed hub of American shipping. New York merchants dominated marine transportation to foreign countries, to other American ports—both Atlantic and Pacific—and to the interior of the continent via the Hudson River and numerous canal systems. Only Boston offered significant rivalry in some aspects of coastal and deep-water trade. (1) Lane’s depiction of New York Harbor has much in common with his Boston views, giving pride of place to vessel activity with just enough of the city skyline visible to make the location identifiable.

To achieve the view seen in New York Harbor, Lane would have been on the west shore of the Hudson, looking due east from a pier in Jersey City. The largely hidden background probably includes Manhattan’s then-northern end at Christopher Street, extending south beyond the Battery, though not as far as Governors Island. The congestion of vessels at wharfside clears to reveal the steeple of Trinity Church against the sky, not unlike Boston’s State House in Lane’s depictions of that city. (2)

On this large canvas (3 x 5 feet), we see the meeting of two technologies for vessel propulsion: sail and steam engine. The former has reached the zenith of its employment; the latter has just begun to prove itself reliable and economical. At center foreground, a harbor tug, using steam to turn its propeller, guides a large packet ship into New York Bay on its way to a transatlantic voyage. Since it rides high in the water, the packet probably has a cargo of cotton stuffed into its hold; no amount of ballast can counter cotton's buoyancy. Partially hidden by the packet ship, a packet brig in the coastal trade is being brought to a wharf by a side-wheel tug (now obsolete). (3)

Beyond the packet brig, a large coastal passenger steamer arrives with travelers and cargo from Long Island or Connecticut, or with similar fare from the Chesapeake Bay and Delaware Bay regions. Scattered about the background are schooners, a half brig, a bark, several ships, and other types of coastal steamers. (4)

In contrast, the foreground shows smaller vessels of local interest, including a Hudson River sloop (left), a Whitehall boat (center), and  a very small coasting schooner (right). The sloop is representative of the sailing packets that carried goods and passengers on the Hudson from Albany to New York Bay and—wind and tides permitting—Long Island Sound. The Whitehall boat, named for a street on Manhattan where the first examples were built, was the harbor’s water taxi, transporting people, communications, and small goods between wharves and vessels. Small coasting vessels were used for carrying cheaper goods in smaller quantities over short distances when it was not economical for larger coasting vessels to do the job. (5)

The complexity of vessel activity in this picture is wisely offset by muted atmospheric effects. It is late afternoon with the sun low in the west and fair-weather clouds moving off to the eastward. Sails, flags, and pennants hang slack in the still air; the only vessels moving are under steam power or oars. Has Lane mixed some prophecy into his composition?

– Erik Ronnberg


1. Robert G. Albion, The Rise of New York Port, 1815–1860 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1939), 1–15, 373–86.

2. Erik A.R. Ronnberg, Jr., ”A Few Words about this Picture: An 1852 Artist’s View of New York Harbor,” American Heritage of Invention & Technology (Fall 1988): 14-20; and R. Frederick Allen, ed., Inventing America (New York: American Heritage, Forbes, 1995), 34–40.

3. Howard I. Chapelle, "Albion, Rise of New York Port", The History of American Sailing Ships (New York: W.W.Norton, 1935), 97, 116 (cotton trade); 162–64 (steam ships); 277–80 (packet ships); 293–94, 306 (brigs).

4. Ibid., 162–64.

5. Ibid., 303–04 (sloops), 305–06 (schooners); and Howard I. Chapelle, American Small Sailing Craft (New York: W.W. Norton, 1951), 195–99 (Whitehall boats).

Supplementary Images

Conservation photo from the Cleveland Museum (detail)
Photo: Marcia Steele
© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Conservation photo from the Cleveland Museum (detail)
Photo: Marcia Steele
© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Conservation photo from the Cleveland Museum (detail)
Photo: Marcia Steele
© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Conservation photo from the Cleveland Museum (detail)
Photo: Marcia Steele
© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Conservation photo from the Cleveland Museum (detail)
Photo: Marcia Steele
© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
New York Harbor and infrared image (details of tugboat)
Photo: Marcia Steele
© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Conservation photo from the Cleveland Museum (detail)
Photo: Marcia Steele
© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Provenance (Information known to date; research ongoing.)

[unknown auction], Brooklyn, N.Y., 1940s
Harry Stone, New York
Charles D. Childs, Boston, 1946
Maxim Karolik, Newport, R.I., 1946
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1948

Exhibition History

M. Knoedler & Co., New York, New York, Commemorative Exhibition of Karolik Private Collection Paintings by Martin J. Heade and Fitz Hugh Lane, May 3–28, 1954., no. 4.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts, American Painting, 1815–1865: One Hundred and Fifty Paintings from the M. and M. Karolik Collection in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1957.
Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut, 42 Karolik Paintings, May 15–July 14, 1963.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts, Maxim Karolik Memorial Exhibition, 1964.
DeCordova Museum, Lincoln, Massachusetts, Fitz Hugh Lane: The First Major Exhibition, March 20–April 17, 1966., no. 31.
Traveled to: Colby College Art Museum, Waterville, Maine, April 30–June 6, 1966.
Cummer Gallery of Art, Jacksonville, Florida, American Paintings of Ports and Harbors, February 4–March 16, 1969.
Traveled to: Norfolk Museum of Arts and Sciences, Norfolk, Va., April 5–May 11, 1969.
John Wilmerding, William A. Farnsworth Library and Art Museum, Rockland, Maine, Fitz Hugh Lane 1804-1805, July 12–September 15, 1974., no. 26.
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Virginia, American Marine Painting, September 27–October 31, 1976.
Traveled to: The Mariners' Museum and Park, Newport News, Va., November 8–December 12, 1976.
New York State Museum, Cutural Education Center, Albany, New York, New York: The State of Art, October 8–November 27, 1977.
Coe Kerr Gallery, New York, New York, American Luminism, October 25–November 25, 1978.
Zhongguo Meishuguan [National Museum of China], Beijing, China, American Paintings from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, September 1–30, 1981.
Traveled to: Shanghai Bowuguan [Shanghai Museum], Shanghai, China, October 20–November 19, 1981.
National Gallery of Art, Washington, District of Columbia, Paintings by Fitz Hugh Lane, May 15–September 5, 1988., no. 38, ill. in color, p. 72, New York Harbor.
Traveled to: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Mass., October 5–December 31, 1988.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York, Art and the Empire City: The Visual Arts in New York, 1825–1861, September 11, 2000–January 7, 2001.

Published References

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Paintings, 1815 to 1865. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; published for the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1949.
McCormick, Gene E. "Fitz Hugh Lane, Gloucester Artist, 1804–1865." Art Quarterly 15, no. 4 (Winter 1952)., fig. 3, p. 296. ⇒ includes text
Baur, John I.H. Commemorative Exhibition: Paintings by Martin Johnson Heade and Fitz Hugh Lane from the Karolik Collections in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. New York: M. Knoedler & Co., 1954. (exhibition brochure)., no. 4. ⇒ includes text
McLanathan, Richard. Fitz Hugh Lane (Museum of Fine Arts Picture Book Number Eight). Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1956; 1972 second ed., p. 4, New York Harbor. ⇒ includes text
The American Neptune, Pictorial Supplement VII: A Selection of Marine Paintings by Fitz Hugh Lane, 1804–1865. Salem, MA: The American Neptune, 1965., pl. XIII, no. 48. ⇒ includes text
Wilmerding, John. Fitz Hugh Lane: The First Major Exhibition. Lincoln, MA: De Cordova Museum; in association with Colby College Art Museum, 1966., no. 31, ill. ⇒ includes text
American Paintings in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1969.
Lynes, Russell. The Art-Makers of Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Atheneum, 1970.
Fitz Hugh Lane 1804-1865. Rockland, ME: William A. Farnsworth Library and Art Museum, 1974.
Sill, Gertrude Grace. Newton Bee, November 17, 1978.
Hoffman, Katherine. "The Art of Fitz Hugh Lane." Essex Institute Historical Collections 119 (1983)., p. 32.
Wilmerding, John. Paintings by Fitz Hugh Lane. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art; in association with Harry N. Abrams, 1988., no. 38, ill. in color, p. 72.
Ronnberg, Erik A.R., Jr. "A Few Words About This Picture." American Heritage of Invention & Technology 4 (Fall 1988). An 1852 artist's view of New York Harbor reveals itself to be an invaluable document of the wood-and-canvas technology of another era. ⇒ includes text
Neill, Peter. On a Painted Ocean: Art of the Seven Seas. New York: New York University Press, 1995.
Wilmerding, John. Fitz Henry Lane. Gloucester, MA: Cape Ann Historical Association, 2005. Reprint of Fitz Hugh Lane, by John Wilmerding. New York: Praeger, 1971. Includes new information regarding the artist's name., pl. III.
Craig, James. Fitz H. Lane: An Artist's Voyage through Nineteenth-Century America. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2006.
Novak, Barbara. American Painting of the Nineteenth Century: Realism, Idealism, and the American Experience, with a New Preface. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Citation: "New York Harbor, c. 1855 (inv. 46)." Fitz Henry Lane Online. Cape Ann Museum. http://fitzhenrylaneonline.org/catalog/entry.php?id=46 (accessed August 21, 2019).
Record last updated March 6, 2017. Please note that the information on this and all pages is periodically reviewed and subject to change.
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