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Catalog entry

inv. 53
Salem Harbor
Oil on canvas
26 1/8 x 42 in. (66.4 x 106.7 cm)
Initialed and dated lower right of center (on sail): FHL / 1853


This view of Massachusetts Bay south of Cape Ann would be better titled “Off Salem Harbor” as, judging by the distant mainland, the setting is two to three miles offshore. It is possibly Lane’s most fanciful depiction of shipping activity, painted for Nathaniel Silsbee, Jr., part of a prominent Salem shipping family who had as much an eye for ships’ sails and rigging detail as Lane had. The largest ship, at the right, may have been owned by Silsbee or his father.

While the painting has the sun shining from a fixed position, casting shadows on the vessels’ sails with consistency, the wind is blowing from three different directions, to judge from the trims of sails in different parts of the picture. Most puzzling from the viewpoint of seamanship are the clipper ship’s studding sails (stu’ns’ls, as spoken by sailors) acting as extensions of the ship’s squaresails, and which ought to have been taken in before the ship got this close to land. There will be a scramble to take in sail if a sea breeze develops!

The packet ship (with painted false gunports) and the clipper ship would have had nothing to do with Salem Harbor, being too large and deep to berth in that small port. They are properly Boston ships, although they may have had owners who lived in Salem but managed their vessels from offices in Boston. Very much like Gloucester’s merchants, Salem’s counterparts needed a deeper, larger port for their ships. Although Salem Harbor was one of the busiest ports in America in the early nineteenth century, largely due to the China trade, by the time Lane painted it, the town's fortunes were in decline.

The other vessels in this painting would have been more suitable for Salem Harbor. From left to right: a merchant brig, two schooner-rigged boats, a dory, a lumber brig (half-brig rigged), a deeply loaded sloop, and (very distant) a bark. The dory in center foreground has a tow line belayed to a cleat nailed to a broken log—a probable salvage of a wharf piling that broke loose. Also note the date and Lane's initials on the sail of the boat in the middle foreground.

– Erik Ronnberg

Provenance (Information known to date; research ongoing.)

the Artist, Gloucester, Mass.
Nathaniel Silsbee, Jr., Salem, Mass.
Marianne C.D. Silsbee, Salem, Mass., 1881 (by inheritance)
Marianne M. Beach, Salem, Mass. (by descent)
Maxim Karolik, Newport R.I.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1964

Exhibition History

DeCordova Museum, Lincoln, Massachusetts, Fitz Hugh Lane: The First Major Exhibition, March 20–April 17, 1966., no. 41.
Traveled to: Colby College Art Museum, Waterville, Maine, April 30–June 6, 1966.
William A. Farnsworth Library and Art Museum, Rockland, Maine, Fitz Hugh Lane, 1804–1865, July 12–September 15, 1974., no. 29.
National Gallery of Art, Washington, District of Columbia, American Light: The Luminist Movement, 1850–1875, February 10–June 15, 1980.
National Museum, Stockholm, Sweden, A New World: American Landscape Painting, 1893–1900, September 18–November 23, 1986.
Traveled to: Goteborgs Konstmuseum, Gothenburg, Sweden, December 6, 1986–February 15, 1987.
National Gallery of Art, Washington, District of Columbia, Paintings by Fitz Hugh Lane, May 15–September 5, 1988., no. 27, ill. in color, p. 52.
Traveled to: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Mass., October 5–December 31, 1988.
United States Ambassador's Residence, Dublin, Ireland, Art of New England, 1770–1954, 2002.

Published References

The American Neptune, Pictorial Supplement VII: A Selection of Marine Paintings by Fitz Hugh Lane, 1804–1865. Salem, MA: The American Neptune, 1965., plate XXI, no. 78. ⇒ 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. 41. ⇒ includes text
American Paintings in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1969.
Wilmerding, John. Fitz Hugh Lane. New York: Praeger, 1971.
Wilmerding, John. Fitz Hugh Lane, 1804–1865. Rockland, ME: William A. Farnsworth Library and Art Museum, 1974., no. 29.
Wilmerding, John, ed. American Light: The Luminist Movement, 1850–1875. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1980., fig. 111, p. 109, text, p. 111.
Wilmerding, John. "American Light: The Luminist Movement, 1850–1875; An Exhibition at the National Gallery of Art." Antiques 117 (April 1980).
Hoffman, Katherine. "The Art of Fitz Hugh Lane." Essex Institute Historical Collections 119 (1983)., p. 33.
Nils-Göran Hökby; Görel Cavalli-Björkman, National Museum (Stockholm). En Ny värld : amerikanskt landskapsmåleri 1830-1900 och ett urval samtida skandinaviskt landskapsmåleri. A New World: American landscape painting 1830-1900 and a selection of contemporary Scandinavian landscape painting. Stockholm: Nationalmuseum, 1986.
Wilmerding, John. Paintings by Fitz Hugh Lane. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art; in association with Harry N. Abrams, 1988., no. 27, ill. in color, p. 53.
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. vi.
Craig, James. Fitz H. Lane: An Artist's Voyage through Nineteenth-Century America. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2006., fig. 108, text, p. 170.
Wilmerding, John. Fitz Henry Lane & Mary Blood Mellen: Old Mysteries and New Discoveries. New York: Spanierman Gallery, 2007., fig. 5, p. 17. ⇒ includes text

Related historical materials

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Citation: "Salem Harbor, 1853 (inv. 53)." Fitz Henry Lane Online. Cape Ann Museum. http://fitzhenrylaneonline.org/catalog/entry.php?id=53 (accessed October 19, 2018).
Record last updated May 8, 2017. Please note that the information on this and all pages is periodically reviewed and subject to change.
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