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Historical Materials: Contemporary Artists
Mellen, Mary Blood
Please see also: Fitz Henry Lane & Mary Blood Mellen
Mary Blood Mellen has emerged as one of the most talented artists to work on Cape Ann in the years immediately preceding the Civil War. Born in Vermont and raised in Sterling, Massachusetts, Mellen attended a girls' academy where she studied the art of painting in watercolor. The circumstances under which she and Lane met remain uncertain; however, by the 1850s they knew each other, and Mellen would soon begin using Lane's drawings and paintings as the basis for her own works.
Like many women artists of her generation, Mellen was a copyist, and a growing body of evidence indicates that Lane gave his student free access to his works. While evocative of Lane's paintings, Mellen's exhibit her own distinct palette, treatment of space, and level of detail. (1)
Mellen made direct copies of more than half a dozen of Lane's favorite subjects: Gloucester Harbor, Norman's Woe, A Storm Breaking Away: Vessel Slipping her Cable, Entrance of Somes Sound, Two Ships in Rough Water, and as noted above, the Blood Family Homestead.
Lane's original of Two Ships (location unknown) was purchased by James H. Mansfield, whose sister described it as "one of the most beautiful Lanes I have ever seen—a picture of a barque dismasted, and rolling in a heavy sea. The touch was very soft and beautiful." Another Lane follower and copyist, the Gloucester artist D. Jerome Elwell, said, "that sky was painted con amore." When Lane died, Mellen's copy was said to have been on his easel at Duncan's Point.
In addition, there were other subjects Mellen painted multiple times, most notably A Smart Blow, Ten Pound Island at Sunset, and Owl's Head. These vary in quality from refined to stiffer and weaker interpretations. It makes one pause over Stevens's frequent phrase written on a number of Lane's drawings, "Paintings made from this drawing" for several listed clients.
– John Wilmerding
(1) Label, Cape Ann Museum, Gloucester, Massachusetts.
"The Cape Ann Sanitary Fair: [Thursday in the Curiosity Room] We noticed and particularly admired a beautiful wreath of Wax Flowers, the work of a lady artist (Mrs. Charles Mellen) who not only excels in this delicate art, but adds to it the genius so rare in women, of a high rank in oil painting. One of her landscape scenes hangs in the same room. We are happy and grateful to acknowledge again a new donation of a Painting from Mr. Lane, at half price. subject: "Little Good Harbor Beach." This, like the former, was sold at raffle and will realize to the Fair a handsome amount... The following articles were drawn in raffle: Mr. Lane's Painting of a "View from the Loaf," $100-Capt. David W. Low at one of the Town Meetings held during the Summer, the volumes presented to the Town by the City of Gloucester, Eng.,were exhibited, and the Selectmen were instructed to acknowledge the receipt of them. They did so, and also forwarded one of Lane's colored engravings of Gloucester Harbor, and one of Walling's maps of the town. [Friday] 2nd picture of Mr. Lane's, "Good Harbor Beach," $100- Mrs. Eli F. Stacy."
Oil on canvas
13 x 20 1/4 in.
Shelburne Museum, Vt.
This picture is less clearly an exact copy and more of a variation on the theme. It could be by either Mellen or D. Jerome Elwell, a Gloucester artist of a generation younger than Lane who very much admired the older man's work and consciously began his own career working in Lane's style. In this case there is an obvious hardness of surfaces, an over-meticulousness in the lighting of details, and an obviousness in the stark silhouettes—all atypical for Lane.
Elwell is a more complicated personality, but his copies after Lane are equally challenging. One was his recreation of Lane's 1856 view of Gloucester burned in the 1864 fire. After Lane's death, Elwell also "touched upon" several pictures. Others in the family, like Kilby Elwell, had artistic tastes, and as a boy, Jerome began to make pencil copies after other works.
Much younger than Lane, D. Jerome Elwell completed high school in Gloucester in the last years of Lane's life and shortly after went to Antwerp to study. This travel was made possible by the generosity of Samuel Sawyer, a patron as well of Lane's in the 1860s. During the seventies Elwell traveled around the Low Countries and elsewhere in Europe, at one time (it was said) sharing a studio with Whistler in Venice. Like Lane before him, he cultivated a taste for twilight and moonlight effects, though Elwell's style tended to be harsher and his colors more metallic.
– John Wilmerding
Cape Ann Museum, Spanierman Gallery
Report on Scholars' Gathering in Association with the Exhibition Fitz Henry Lane & Mary Blood Mellen: Old Mysteries and New Discoveries, organized by Cape Ann Museum, Gloucester, Massachusetts, in partnership with Spanierman Gallery, and curated by Professor John Wilmerding.
Oil on canvas
8 x 14 in.
The questions about the Ten Pound Island series are further compounded by at least one version that was reworked by Elwell. An inscription on the reverse—presumably in Lane's hand—of his Ten Pound Island at Sunset reads, "Composition, F.H. Lane to J.L. Stevens." Beneath, Elwell wrote: "D. Jerome Elwell touched upon, March 13, '91."
Elwell had overpainted some of Lane's sky with even more intense and hotter cadmium reds and pinks, presumably more in keeping with later Victorian taste. The Mellen copies also tend toward a lighter and paler palette, but her versions are distinguishable ultimately for their softer rendering of rock formations and boat rigging in particular. Seen in isolation, the best of them seem very close to Lane's own hand.
– John Wilmerding
In John Wilmerding, Fitz Henry Lane and Mary Blood Mellen: Old Mysteries and New Discoveries (New York: Spanierman, 2007), 40-43.
Essex County Probate Records, Volume 424, Leaves 34 & 35
The will disposed of Lane's property (including watch and diamond breast pin), his monetary assets, and gave to the city of Gloucester a painting of the Old Fort. Joseph Stevens, Jr. and T. Sewall Lancaster were named executors. It was signed by Lane on March 10, 1865.