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inv. 81
Off Mount Desert Island
Oil on canvas
24 x 35 1/16 in. (61 x 89.1 cm)
Signed and dated lower left: F H Lane 1856


The frequent summer cruises along the coast of Maine in the 1850s stimulated Lane to create some of his purest landscapes. Beginning with Twilight on the Kennebec, 1849 (inv. 258), from what was likely Lane’s first Maine trip in 1848, to Lumber Schooners at Evening on Penobscot Bay, 1863 (inv. 343) and others in the 1860s, these landscapes are relatively free of the human and marine activity that Lane commonly documented in his Gloucester and Boston paintings. Their subject is the intense color and mood of the twilight or sunrise hours on the landscape as viewed over water. One feels Lane’s awe of the scale and intensity of the Maine coast—its wildness and drama—compared to the gentler and more populated coast of Massachusetts.

This painting is a lovely, quiet work that contrasts the moody stillness of an empty cove with the sunlight hitting the ascending peaks of Mount Desert Island as they rise out of the clouds. It is an unusually unpopulated scene for Lane, though there are two vessels on either side of the composition, placed almost as afterthoughts. The cove has a few swimming seabirds and there are two birds standing on the rocks, but the most animated shapes are the dead trees. They stand in articulated poses with their branches leading the eye from the foreground tree on the right directly to the one in the middle distance and up to the peaks as they rise to the height of the island.

The painting appears so straightforward that it is easy to miss the artfulness of Lane’s design. He has composed the elements using his familiar X pattern. In this case, the curve of the cove and the light on the water on the lower left lead the eye out to the ship and beyond, to the glow of the sunrise at the horizon. The other side of the X goes from the dark rocks in the lower right foreground to the dead tree that points to a second dead tree, on the island. The eye continues to follow as this tree points up to the highest peak in the upper left.

Note the wonderful rhythm Lane has set up with the three descending peaks leading down to the water and the ship. While not unaware of the drama of the sun hitting off the peaks, Lane has restrained the impulse for exaggeration and stepped them down to the sea in stages, thus connecting their immensity with the subdued intimacy of the foreground cove and shore.

Lane's restraint is in interesting contrast to his peers of the Hudson River School, who were winning over clients and critics with increasingly dramatic scenes of pyrotechnic skies over vast wildernesses. Lane could have easily reverted to drama here, but would have lost the essence of the predawn moment on an anonymous cove in Maine that is the heart of this painting.

– Sam Holdsworth

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Subject Types:   Coastal Scene »
Landscape Types:   Beach »   //   Rocky Shoreline »
Seasons / Weather:   Sunrise »
Maine Buildings & Locales:   Mount Desert & Mt. Desert Rock Light »
New England Locales:   Maine »
Animals & People:   Seabirds »
Activities of People:   Rowing »

Historical Materials
Below is historical information related to the Lane work above. To see complete information on a subject on the Historical Materials page, click on the subject name (in bold and underlined).

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Mount Desert was in the Frenchman's Bay Customs District, and in 1850 the district ranked 4th, at 11.2%, among Maine's 13 customs districts, for its investment in the cod fisheries. The thick, old-growth forest provided ample opportunity for sawmills and the export of pine lumber and timber, as well as shipbuilding, which went hand-in-hand with fishing vessels for the cod fisheries.The coasters of the island found ample freight in the shipment of lumber from the sawmills of the Union River at Ellsworth. The rugged interior of the island limited settlements to the coastal fringe, creating a number of independent, isolated communities. Mount Desert's small fishing and farming communities, in the early 1850s, were set like small diamonds in an incredible crown of natural beauty. These small, isolated villages, clinging to a jagged coastline which stood resolute against the breaking sea, would have reminded artists like Lane of an America untouched by the progress of time. This was New England as it had once been, and there were few places in coastal New England where this claim could still be made.

Mount Desert, as it is colloquially known, has been known by many names throughout its history. The Etchemin called it Pem-etn-ic, "a range of mountains," as seen from the sea, "where the hills rise in a long saw-toothed range," Champlain called the island, notable for its granite mountains, of which one rises 1530 feet , "Isle des Monts Deserts," "barren mountains Island," and Sieur de la Mothe de Cadillac, who was granted a large tract at the head of Frenchman Bay in 1687, called Douaquet. Cadillac is one of a number of Frenchman whose presence in history is denoted by Frenchman's Bay.

At the beginning of recorded history Asticou was an Etchemin Sakom who lived seasonally on Mount Desert with his band. His larger homeland, Ketakamigwa, "the big land on the seacoast," was "an ecologically diverse coastal woodland environment, combining a saltwater archipelago with a 1000 mi.² freshwater hinterland broken by hills, swamps, lakes and ponds, and drained by a few major rivers in numerous smaller streams." The highly mobile Wabenaki families, ethnically identified as Etchemins, inhabited Penobscot Bay, making full use of the abundance of natural resources, including the building of a fish weir, K'chi-siti-mokan'gan, "The Great Fish Weir," between Little and Big Deer Isle, from which Eggemoggin Reach is derived), and shaping the natural environment to suit their needs.

Asticou, or members of his band, were on hand to greet Champlain in 1604, and he was at Manchester Point in 1613 when Father Baird and three Jesuit priests dropped anchor on their way to establish a Catholic mission on the Penobscot River. Asticou invited them to stay, the invitation was accepted, and the mission of St. Sauveur at Fernald Point began to be built. The work had barely begun when the mission was destroyed by Capt. Samuel Argall, an English privateer from Jamestown.

Champlain named Mount Desert but left its sentinel rock, 26 miles off shore, unidentified. The island was given the name of Mount Desert Dry Rock in the 18th century, and shortened somewhat after this. The island served as a navigational aid, not a hazard, for coastal seamen. The US government purchased this pile of rocks from the State of Maine in 1829, there surely must have been a few laughs over this transaction, and the government authorized $5000 to build a light station, which began operation in 1830.

– Mark Honey


Conkling, Philip W, "Islands in Time," A Natural and Cultural History of the Islands of the Gulf of Maine, Island Institute, Rockland, and Downeast Books, Camden.

Eckstorm, Fannie Hardy, "Indian Place-Names of the Penobscot Valley and the Maine Coast," University of Maine Studies, 2nd Series, #55, November 1941, reprinted 1960 by the University of Maine Press.  Frank G Speck's "Penobscot Man," University of Pennsylvania Press, 1940.

Duncan, Roger F, "Coastal Maine, A Maritime History," WW Norton & Company, New York, 1992.

 Prins, Harald E L, and McBride, Bunny, "Asticou's Island Domain: Wabenaki Peoples at Mount Desert Island," 1500-2000, Acadia National Park, Ethnographic Overview and Assessment, Volume 1, repaired under cooperative agreement with The Abbe Museum, Bar Harbor, Maine, Northeast Regional Ethnography Program, National Park Service, Boston, Massachusetts, September, 2007.

Rowe, William Hutchinson, "The Maritime History of Maine," Harpswell Press, 1996.




1850 Gloucester Daily Telegraph 9.11.1850
Stevens, Joseph Jr.
Gloucester Daily Telegraph
Article by Joseph L. Stevens

"The beauties of this place [Maine] are well known and appreciated among artists. We heard of Bonfield and Williams who had reluctantly left but a short time before. Fishe had spent several weeks there. Champney and Kensett were then in  another part of the island, and we have reason to believe that Church and some  others were in the immediate vicinity–Lane who was with us, made good additions  to his portfolio."

1859 Gloucester Telegraph 2.9.1859
Gloucester Telegraph p. 2, col. 3
Boston Public Library
Accession # G587

"PICTURES. – Two of Lane's finest paintings are on exhibition at the Marine Insurance Reading Room. One is a most spirited representation of a gale on the sea coast. Huge rollers come rumbling towards the rocky foreground where the spray dashes high and the receding wave is thrown up sharp and wedgelike by the great crested breaker under which it is speedily overwhelmed. In the middle distance a bald headland receives the sun's rays which slant through the mist from an opening in the heavy clouds. A close reefed ship leaps proudly over the waves and safely weathers the dangerous point beyond.

The companion-piece is a bay scene in which the setting sun throws a flood of golden light over the placid water. Vessels of different kinds, with sails in light and shadow, enliven the picture. A homely old sloop getting underweigh well sets off the most prominent object - a handsome ship under full canvass, slowly gliding over the ground-swell with a light breeze afloat, while there is hardly enough below to make a cat's paw.

These pictures were painted for the spring exhibition of the National Academy at New York, whither they will go unless stopped by some appreciative purchaser.

In Lane's studio are several gems of art. - Wind against Tide on Georges, a stirring pure marine, and Recollections of Mount Desert, an exquisite bit of landscape, evince a versatility of pencil which he is not generally known to possess.

The demand for a View of Gloucester worth having (as that poor caricature of Tidd's is not) has induced Lane to supply another, which is the third and largest of his series. It is taken from Rocky Neck, like its predecessor. Of course all the modern improvements visible from that point of view are represented with the artist's usual accuracy of drawing. To the first 300 subscribers the print will be offered at the low price of $2.25 per copy. The original painting from which it is lithographed, and several other of his pictures, will be distributed by lot among those who choose to take their copies at $2.75 – a price which the print alone will command before the entire edition is exhausted."

Image: Boston Public Library
CHART G, Penobscot Bay to Machias (detail of Southwest Harbor)
George W. Eldridge
Chart G
Charles G. Hutchinson, Publisher
Private Collection

George W. Eldridge was a Boston-based publisher of charts, pilot books, and tide tables for yachtsmen cruising in the New York–New England region. Detail of the Mount Desert portion of a much larger chart.

Also filed under: Maps »   //  Northeast Harbor »   //  Somes Sound »

Chart showing route of Lane's 1852 cruise from Castine to Bar Harbor
Erik Ronnberg/US Coast Survey chart
c. 1875
U.S. Coast Survey

Chart with key showing the route of an excursion on the sloop "Superior" out of Castine made by William H. Witherle, Lane, Stevens and friends during which Lane made several sketches of Mt. Desert scenery. The trip was chronicled by Witherle in his diary of 1852.

Image: Erik Ronnberg
Entrance to Southwest Harbor
"U.S. Coast Pilot, Atlantic Coast, Parts I–II." First edition. Published by Washington GPO, 1891
Folded plate between pp. 62 and 63
photo (historical)
Mt. Desert Rock
N. L. Stebbins

From The Illustrated Coast Pilot with sailing directions. The Coast of New England from New York to Eastport, Maine including Bays and Harbors, published by N. L. Stebbins, Boston, Mass.

view ]
The Story of Mount Desert Island
Samuel Eliot Morison
Boston: Little Brown and Co.
pp. 75-76

Morison lists the original names of mountains and other features on Mount Desert and the corresponding new names designated as official when Acadia National Park was created.

Topographical Map of Hancock County Maine
H. F. Walling
Wilson Museum, Castine, Maine.
Library of Congress Catalog Number 2011588006

1860 map, including census of towns. 

Image: Library of Congress

Also filed under: Castine »   //  Maps »   //  Penobscot Bay »

Topographical Map of Hancock County Maine under the direction of H.F. Walling 1860 (Mount Desert or Somesville Business Directory detail)
H. F. Walling
Wilson Museum, Castine, Maine
view ]
William Witherle Diary August 16–21, 1852
William Witherle
Personal diary
Wilson Museum, Castine, Maine (A00060-1a-1h)

Description of an excursion taken by Joseph Stevens, Jr., Lane, Witherle, Samuel Adams, Jr., and George Tilden around the islands of Maine near Mt. Desert. The group hired the Sloop "Superior" which was owned by Pilot Getchell. In his diary, Witherle mentions multiple times that "Lane took a sketch" especially when the water was calm. Lane often stayed on board the boat, while the others went ashore.


Excerpts of the diary include:

August 16: "Lane has a knack for frying fish."

August 17: "leaving Lane to take a sketch, we took a climb."

August 19: "went to ascend one of the highest mountains. 3/4 the way up we had to wait – once in a while for Lane who with his crutches could not keep up with us – but got along faster than we thought possible . . .Lane got up about an hour after the rest of us."

The entire text is transcribed in an account published by the Wilson Museum.

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The term "ship," as used by nineteenth-century merchants and seamen, referred to a large three-masted sailing vessel which was square-rigged on all three masts. (1) In that same period, sailing warships of the largest classes were also called ships, or more formally, ships of the line, their size qualifying them to engage the enemy in a line of battle. (2) In the second half of the nineteenth century, as sailing vessels were replaced by engine-powered vessels, the term ship was applied to any large vessel, regardless of propulsion or use. (3)

Ships were often further defined by their specialized uses or modifications, clipper ships and packet ships being the most noted examples. Built for speed, clipper ships were employed in carrying high-value or perishable goods over long distances. (4) Lane painted formal portraits of clipper ships for their owners, as well as generic examples for his port paintings. (5)

Packet ships were designed for carrying capacity which required some sacrifice in speed while still being able to make scheduled passages within a reasonable time frame between regular destinations. In the packet trade with European ports, mail, passengers, and bulk cargos such as cotton, textiles, and farm produce made the eastward passages. Mail, passengers (usually in much larger numbers), and finished wares were the usual cargos for return trips. (6) Lane depicted these vessels in portraits for their owners, and in his port scenes of Boston and New York Harbors.

Ships in specific trades were often identified by their cargos: salt ships which brought salt to Gloucester for curing dried fish; tea clippers in the China Trade; coffee ships in the West Indies and South American trades, and  cotton ships bringing cotton to mills in New England or to European ports.  Some trades were identified by the special destination of a ship’s regular voyages; hence Gloucester vessels in the trade with Surinam were identified as Surinam ships (or barks, or brigs, depending on their rigs). In Lane’s Gloucester Harbor scenes, there are likely (though not identifiable) examples of Surinam ships, but only the ship "California" in his depiction of the Burnham marine railway in Gloucester (see Three Master on the Gloucester Railways, 1857 (inv. 29)) is so identified. (7)

– Erik Ronnberg


1. R[ichard)] H[enry] Dana, Jr., The Seaman’s Friend, 13th ed. (Boston: Thomas Groom & Co., 1873), p. 121 and Plate IV with captions.

2. A Naval Encyclopaedia (Philadelphia: L. R. Hamersly & Co., 1884), 739, 741.

3.  M.H. Parry, et al., Aak to Zumbra: A Dictionary of the World’s Watercraft (Newport News, VA: The Mariners’ Museum, 2000), 536.

4. Howard I. Chapelle, The History of American Sailing Ships (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1935), 281–87.

5. Ibid.

6. Howard I. Chapelle, The National Watercraft Collection (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1960), 26–30.

7. Alfred Mansfield Brooks, Gloucester Recollected: A Familiar History (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1974), 67–69.

Golden State
From American Clipper Ships 1833–1858, by Octavius T. Howe and Frederick C. Matthews, vol. 1 (Salem, MA: Marine Research Society, 1926).

Photo caption reads: "'Golden State' 1363 tons, built at New York, in 1852. From a photograph showing her in dock at Quebec in 1884."

photo (current)
"Friendship of Salem"
Built in 1998

A replica of an early nineteenth-century full-rigged ship.

Homeward Bound
Hand-colored lithograph
Published by N. Currier, New York
Library of Congress (2002695891)
Engraving from Merchant Vessels of the United States (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office)

Engraving of ship.

Packet "Nonantum" Riding out a Gale
Samuel Walters
Oil on canvas
24 x 35 in.
Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass.

Walters' painting depicts the "Nonantum" homeward bound for Boston from Liverpool in 1842. The paddle-steamer is one of the four Clyde-built Britannia-class vessels, of which one is visible crossing in the opposite direction.

Image: Peabody Essex Museum
Engraving in R. H. Dana, The Seaman's Friend, 13th ed. (Thomas Groom & Co. Publisher, 1873)

A ship is square-rigged throughout; that is, she has tops, and carries square sails on all three of her masts.

Silhouettes of vessel types
Charles G. Davis
Book illustrations from "Shipping and Craft in Silhouette" by Charles G. Davis, Salem, Mass. Marine Research Society, 1929. Selected images

Exhibition History

1948 Brooklyn Museum: Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York, The Coast and the Sea: A Survey of American Marine Painting.
1953 American Federation of Arts: American Federation of Arts, New York, New York, American Paintings in the Nineteenth Century.
1954a M. Knoedler & Co.: M. Knoedler & Co., New York, New York, American Panorama: An Exhibition of Paintings from the Brooklyn Museum Collection, no. 24.
1955 Cincinnati Museum: Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, Ohio, Rediscoveries in American Painting.
1966 DeCordova Museum: DeCordova Museum, Lincoln, Massachusetts, Fitz Hugh Lane: The First Major Exhibition, no. 44.
1972 Smithsonian Institutution: National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, District of Columbia, National Parks and the American Landscape, no. 6.
1976 Davis & Long Co.: Davis & Long Co., New York, New York, Masterpieces of American Painting from the Brooklyn Museum, no. 9.
1986–87 National Museum: National Museum, Stockholm, A New World: American Landscape Painting, 1893–1900, no. 66.
1988 National Gallery of Art: National Gallery of Art, Washington, District of Columbia, Paintings by Fitz Hugh Lane, no. 46, ill. in color, p. 158.
1996 Jordan-Volpe Gallery: Jordan-Volpe Gallery, New York, New York, Masterpieces of American Painting from the Brooklyn Museum, no. 66.
1999 Galerie Belvedere: Osterreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna, America: The New World in 19th-Century Painting, no. 35.
2000–01 Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza: Museo Thyssen- Bornemisza, Madrid, Explorar el Eden: Paisaje Americano del siglo XIX, p. 128.
2002 Tate Britain: Tate Modern, London, American Sublime: Landscape Painting in the United States, 1820–1880, p. 254.

Published References

McCormick 1952: "Fitz Hugh Lane, Gloucester Artist, 1804–1865," fig. 7, ill., p. 304, text, p. 301. ⇒ includes text
M. Knoedler & Co. 1954: Commemorative Exhibition: Paintings by Martin Johnson Heade and Fitz Hugh Lane from the Karolik Collections in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. ⇒ includes text
Sharf 1962: "Fitz Hugh Lane: Visits to the Maine Coast, 1848–55." ⇒ includes text
Wilmerding 1966a: Fitz Hugh Lane: The First Major Exhibition, no. 44. ⇒ includes text
Wilmerding 1971a: Fitz Hugh Lane.
Cape Ann 1974: Paintings and Drawings by Fitz Hugh Lane.
Brooklyn Museum 1979: The Brooklyn Museum: American Paintings, ill., p. 77.
Gerdts 1985: ""The Sea is His Home": Clarence Cook Visits Fitz Hugh Lane," ill., p.48. ⇒ includes text
Wilmerding 1988a: Paintings by Fitz Hugh Lane, no. 46, ills. , p. 106 (in color, detail), fig. 28, p. 149.
Wilmerding 1994: The Artist's Mount Desert: American Painters on the Maine Coast, fig. 59, p.65. ⇒ includes text
Wilton and Barringer 2002: American Sublime: Landscape Painting in the United States, 1820–1880, cat. 66, ill. in color, p. 189, text, pp. 188, 254, 270.
Brooklyn Museum 2006: American Paintings in the Brooklyn Museum: Artists Born by 1876, ill., pl. 44, p. 746.
Carbone 2006: An American View: Masterpieces from the Brooklyn Museum, ill., p. 63.

Related historical materials

Maine Locales & Buildings
Vessel Types
Citation: "Off Mount Desert Island, 1856 (inv. 81)." Fitz Henry Lane Online. Cape Ann Museum. (accessed June 19, 2024).
Record last updated August 4, 2016. Please note that the information on this and all pages is periodically reviewed and subject to change.
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