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Fitz Henry Lane Biography
Fitz Henry Lane was born Nathaniel Rogers Lane on December 19, 1804, in Gloucester, Massachusetts, the son of sail-maker Jonathan Dennison Lane and Sarah (Sally) Ring Haskell Lane. Young Nathaniel Rogers Lane was baptized on March 17, 1805.(1) He had one elder brother, Edward, two years older, and two younger sisters: Sarah Ann (1806-1808) and Sarah Ann, born 1809. His maternal ancestors were among the earliest to arrive on Cape Ann, settling in Gloucester’s West Parish; his paternal ancestors arrived after 1700 and settled in the northern part of Cape Ann, giving their name to what is now the village of Lanesville.
At the turn of the nineteenth century, Gloucester had become a bustling seaport. Since the 1760s, commerce had been concentrating around the Inner Harbor, luring residents from outlying neighborhoods to the waterfront and to maritime-based jobs. Streets had been laid out, and houses, schools, meeting houses and waterfront structures had been erected. Ships of all sizes and rigs filled the harbor. When Nathaniel Rogers Lane was a young man in the 1820s, most of the town’s population lived and worked in Gloucester’s Harbor Village.
Although much research has been done into the narrative of Lane’s early life, few specifics have been documented. It has long been known that his ability to walk was impaired at an early age. 1820 tax records state that Sarah Lane (Nathaniel Roger Lane's mother) "supports a lame child" and "ought not to be taxed."(2) What precipitated this impairment remains unclear, however, as does the full extent of his impairment—later accounts of his life discuss him as being able to walk with either crutches or a cane. Questions also remain about Lane’s formal education, his religious beliefs (or lack thereof), jobs he may or may not have held as a young man and what, if any, exposure he may have had to art. In 1830, when he sold his share of the family house on Middle Street to his brother Edward, he was listed as a shoemaker.
In the year 1830, the ship "Boston" was struck by lightning and burned; a passenger named Charles Osgood survived and made a sketch of the event. It was from this sketch that Lane made his watercolor, the first known Lane painting. ,(3) Also during this same year, a major fire burned much of the town's Main Street, affecting Lane and his friends and family.(4)
The next year, for reasons unknown, Lane petitioned the Massachusetts Congress and Senate and was granted permission to change his name from Nathaniel Rogers Lane.(5) Although for many years scholars believed that he changed his name to Fitz Hugh Lane, the name by which he was known for most of the twentieth century, research has established that he changed it to Fitz Henry Lane; two paintings ( and ) are known to have his full signature. A year later, at the age of 27, Lane moved from Gloucester to Boston to assume an apprenticeship at William S. Pendleton’s lithography firm and to lay the foundations for his career as an artist.
Fitz Henry Lane worked from 1832 to 1837 at Pendleton’s lithography shop. William and John Pendleton (and later, Thomas Moore) employed the relatively new lithographic technique, and ran the longest-lived and most successful lithography firm in America. Lane then moved on to the firm of Keith and Moore, also in Boston, and by 1845, he had established his own partnership with J.W.A. Scott. With a natural talent for drawing, Lane excelled in the field of lithography, creating illustrations that appeared on business trade cards, advertisements, and sheet music. He also created panoramic views of towns around New England and, on occasion, illustrations for books.
In 1835, while at Pendleton’s, Lane began work on a drawing that would later be transformed into a richly detailed lithographic view of Gloucester Harbor as seen from its eastern shore, sold by subscription.. The scene encompassed virtually all of Gloucester's waterfront with wharves and buildings carefully drawn against a backdrop of sun bursting through the clouds. Clearly intended for the local audience, the work was praised by people on Cape Ann for its extreme accuracy and for its beauty. Perhaps most importantly, the skill that Lane would perfect In coming years—creating works of art that were idealized renderings but also faithful to detail—is foreshadowed in this early work. Lane finished the lithograph in 1836, when it was
Lane remained immersed in the Boston art scene through the early 1840s, honing his drawing skills and, as he absorbed all he could from artists working around him, turning increasingly to painting. By 1841, confident of his abilities, Lane had a small business card ("Britannia" crossed the Atlantic, including passengers Charles Dickens and his wife, Kate, a trip which Dickens chronicled in his American Notes. This tumultuous crossing became the subject of the two earliest paintings from Lane's professional career in Boston, and .) produced, advertising himself as a “marine painter.” He was also listed in Stimson’s Boston Almanac for the first time under the same professional title.(6) In April of that year, the
Shortly thereafter, Lane began exhibiting his paintings at venues around Boston and New York, including the American Art Union, the Boston Athenaeum, and at the Boston Artists’ Association, where he was a member. His connection to Gloucester was still strong, and in 1846 he completed another subscription lithograph depicting the harbor town,. In late 1847, Gloucester was connected to neighboring cities Boston and New York by the arrival of Eastern Railroad, facilitating faster and easier travel for the burgeoning artist.(7) Lane moved back to Gloucester shortly thereafter (though he would retain his Tremont Temple studio until 1850).
When Lane returned to Cape Ann, he immersed himself in the community, taking an active role in civic and cultural events including Independence Day celebrations, tableaux organized in connection with library festivals, and other public happenings around Gloucester.(8) In the autumn of 1849, Fitz Henry Lane purchased a piece of property in Gloucester on Duncan’s Point overlooking the Inner Harbor. A granite house with a studio on the top floor was soon erected and the artist (along with his sister and her family) took up residence in 1851. From that site, looking down on Harbor Cove and out over The Fort and Ten Pound Island to the Western Shore, many of Lane’s finest works emerged: masterpieces which captured the prosperity of the town in detail and beauty.
Lane also engaged himself in the Gloucester Lyceum, becoming a member in the mid-1840s and serving as a director in 1849, 1851, 1852 and 1858. Organized in 1830 to promote “useful knowledge and the advancement of popular education,” the Gloucester Lyceum hosted numerous lecturers during Lane’s tenure as a director: men who spoke on a range of topics, from spiritualism and education reform to astronomy and “the Yankee character.” Chief among them were essayists Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, the most eloquent exponents of transcendentalism—the idea that our understanding of the world comes through individual intuition and imagination and that our knowledge transcends what we can actually see or hear or touch. One can only speculate how these men and their musings affected Lane.
1847 and 1848 saw growing popularity for the artist, as noted by various newspaper accounts and increasing appearances in exhibitions around New England. This renown continued to grow into the 1850s, as Lane participated in exhibitions up and down the East Coast, from Baltimore to Maine. While it is not certain when he first visited Maine, two paintings of Maine locales (one is now lost, the other is first documented trip to Maine. Until 1863, he returned almost annually to visit the Stevens family in Castine, generally with his friend Joseph L. Stevens, Jr. The rugged coastline of Maine and its environs captivated Lane, and were subsequently featured in his paintings, drawings, and lithographs until his death. Through the rest of his career, Maine would prove to be as much of a muse to the artist as his native Gloucester.) may have been inspired by Lane's first of many visits to the state.(9) In the summer of 1850, Lane made his
Lane had many associates among contemporary artists in Boston and, after his return to Gloucester, he worked on community projects in collaboration with a number of Cape Ann artists. His only documented student and collaborator was Mary Blood Mellen. While Mellen could have plausibly met Lane as early as 1845, they are not generally thought to have begun working together on a regular basis until the 1850s.(10) Mellen’s brother-in-law, William Roland Grenville Mellen, was invited to become the pastor of the First Universalist Church in Gloucester. He remained there from 1855-1861, providing Mary Blood Mellen with direct access to the town and its famed painter. Lane and Mellen built a strong working relationship; Mellen would soon begin using Lane's drawings and paintings as the basis for her own works, with the two of them completing at least one collaborative effort, . In 1859, Lane accompanied her to her family’s property in Sterling, Massachusetts.(11)
Like many women artists of her generation, Mellen was a copyist, and a growing body of evidence indicates that Lane gave his student open access to his works. While evocative of Lane's paintings, Mellen's works exhibit her own distinct palette and brushwork, treatment of space, and level of detail. Mellen emerged as one of the most talented artists to work on Cape Ann in the years immediately preceding the Civil War.
Fitz Henry Lane worked in both painting and lithography throughout his career, creating some of his finest works in his final years. He continued to return to his drawings for subject matter, often using them to create two, three, and sometimes four paintings of the same scene for various customers. Working in his studio overlooking Gloucester Harbor, Lane made subtle changes and refinements to each composition, including the fading light of sunset, the suggestion of an approaching storm, or the hull of a wrecked ship to add variety and interest to his paintings. Narrative detail disappeared from his canvases as time passed, often replaced with open sparse landscapes. In addition to turning to earlier drawings, Lane continued to seek out new compositions, making sketching excursions to East Gloucester in August 1861 to view the newly completed lighthouses on Thacher Island, and to Old Neck Beach in Manchester. Late in 1864, just months before his death, Lane visited Folly Cove. This is where his earliest Gloucester ancestor, Samuel Lane, resided in the early eighteenth century.
J.W. Black Studio.
Cape Ann Museum Library & Archive
Throughout his life, Fitz Henry Lane remained a well-known and highly regarded member of the Gloucester community. In addition to reports on Lane’s strawberry crops and magnolia trees, the local newspaper regularly sent representatives to visit his studio to report on paintings in progress. Their observations were recorded at length in the paper, describing in high emotion and great detail the paintings they saw on Lane's easel. A news account rarely concluded without the writer urging readers to make their own visits to Lane’s studio and to consider purchasing works. Below is an excerpt from one such article that appeared in the Cape Ann Weekly Advertiser on February 8, 1861, a piece which is evocative of the high esteem in which Lane was held by all.
We visited the studio of Mr. Fitz H. Lane a few days since, and spent an hour very pleasantly in viewing the paintings of this talented artist. There are quite a number of beautiful pictures now on exhibition among which is a spirited picture of an “Outward Bound Ship”; there is an air of life about this painting which characterized the works of this artist, and in gazing upon it the ship seems imbued with motion and with a slight stretch of the imagination we can fancy that we hear the rippling of the water under her bow, so natural is the scene. It is a masterpiece….
Sadly, Lane’s increasing renown coincided with his failing health. The Cape Ann Advertiser reported that he was “quite sick” in the late winter of 1864, though he did recover for a brief period of time. On August 13, 1865, Lane died of bladder cancer at home with his close friend, Joseph L. Stevens, Jr., at his bedside. Stevens' devotion to Lane continued long after the artist's death. He was the executor of Lane’s estate (which included a gift of the Old Fort painting to the town of Gloucester) and had Lane buried in the Stevens' family plot in Gloucester's Oak Grove Cemetery. His funeral took place at the First Parish Church, which was Unitarian at the time, though its denominational affiliation vacillated. The Reverend William Mountford, who had been the Unitarian Pastor there from 1852 to 1853, was brought back from Boston by Stevens to officiate.(12) Stevens also organized Lane's drawings and added notes on places, dates, their travels together and the paintings done from the drawings. Lane’s obituary marks his legacy to his community, stating that he “was much beloved by all who knew him, and a large circle of acquaintances will mourn his loss.”(13)
–Biography compiled by Meredith Massar Munson, with text adapted from the Cape Ann Museum wall labels by Martha Oaks.
1. Sarah Dunlap and Stephanie Buck, Fitz Henry Lane: Family and Friends (Gloucester, MA: Church & Mason Publishing; in association with the Cape Ann Historical Museum, 2007), 15.
3. Ibid., 36, note 133.
4. “Distressing Fire,” Gloucester Telegraph, September 18, 1830.
5. Sarah Dunlap and Stephanie Buck, "Fitz Who? The Artist Latterly Known as Fitz Hugh Lane," The Essex Genealogist 25 (February 2005): 12.
6. Ibid.,12, n. 8.
7. Ronald Dale Karr, The Rail Lines of Southern New England. (Branch Line Press, 1995): 264–65.
8. Dunlap and Buck. Fitz Henry Lane: Family and Friends, 91-93.
9. Wilmerding, John. "The Lure of Mount Desert and the Maine Coast," Paintings by Fitz Hugh Lane (Washington, DC: Harry N. Abrams, 1988), 107. Also, Frederic Alan Sharf, "Fitz Hugh Lane: Visits to the Maine Coast, 1848–55," Essex Institute Historical Collections 98 (April 1962): 113.
10. Dunlap and Buck, Fitz Henry Lane: Family and Friends, 91-93.
11. John Wilmerding, Fitz Henry Lane and Mary Blood Mellen: Old Mysteries and New Discoveries (New York: Spanierman Gallery, 2007), 40.
12. Stephanie Buck, e-mail message to Melissa Geisler Trafton, October 7, 2015.
13. "Death of the Artist Lane," Cape Ann Advertiser, August 18, 1865.