loading loading
Search this catalogue

Catalog entry

inv. 344
Becalmed Off Halfway Rock
Half-Way Rock; Off Half Way Rock; Sailboats Becalmed Off Halfway Rock
Oil on canvas
27 11/16 x 47 7/16 in. (70.3 x 120.5 cm)
Signed and dated lower right: F.H. Lane. 1860.


The North Shore of Massachusetts Bay from Nahant to Cape Ann forms an archipelago dotted with small islands, exposed rocks, and many more submerged rock formations that pose hazards to navigation in a heavily trafficked sea-lane. One of the outermost obstacles is a single, dome-shaped rock situated halfway between Boston and Cape Ann, one and one-half miles distant from the nearest submerged rocks. Appropriately named Halfway Rock, it was an important aid to local navigation. It was also a marker for finding many small fishing grounds to the east, and to recently discovered Stellwagen’s Bank to the southeast. (1)

We are looking due west, and it is late afternoon, the sun silhouetting the sails of the lumber schooner at left. Atop Halfway Rock is a stone monument—probably erected by the U.S. Coast Survey for triangulation in the early stages of mapping the New England coastline, ca. 1840. It was kept as an aid to navigation (as were most other monuments erected for this purpose) and fitted with a red beacon late in the nineteenth century. (2) For vessels in the coastal trade, Halfway Rock was an important marker for taking bearings to enter Marblehead, Salem, and Beverly Harbors while safely avoiding the numerous hazards.

The lumber schooner (at left) is headed south, probably to Boston, to discharge its cargo of boards, which were most likely cut and loaded in Maine (as seen in Twilight on the Kennebec, 1849 (inv. 258) and View of Southwest Harbor, Maine: Entrance to Somes Sound, 1852 (inv. 260)). For “coasters” sailing through this heavily trafficked area, passing Halfway Rock on the seaward (west) side was best for making good time and avoiding a dangerous coastline. (3)

Fishermen seeking seasonal small grounds in the area, particularly eastward, relied on the rock for accurate directions. Each fishing spot was usually a patch of gravel, a rock, or a small ledge that attracted cod, haddock, and lobsters at specific times of the year, requiring specific knowledge of place, season, and target species. Symbolic of this activity are the lobsterman in his dory (left foreground) and the pinky with a dory and wherry in tow (right foreground) fitted out for gillnetting of herring (the gill net is stowed in the wherry, ready to be set). Herring schooled in this area in September—an important clue to the time of year this painting depicts. (4)

For Salem, like Gloucester, the foreign trade was on the wane, due to the increasing sizes of merchant vessels and a harbor too shallow to accommodate them. Like Gloucester merchants, Salem merchants moved their ships and offices to Boston, leaving their city open to other business ventures. The lone square-rigged merchant ship in the right background, obscured by the pinky, is symbolic of this decline, which becomes all the more obvious by comparison with Lane’s portrayal of vessel activity in his paintings of Boston Harbor. (5)

Symbolic of things to come is the small sloop at far right—one of a growing multitude of pleasure craft that will come to dominate this part of New England’s coastline after the Civil War. Yachting for the wealthy was finding its way from Boston to Marblehead, with small pleasure craft for the middle class becoming more common in working ports like Gloucester. (6)

– Erik Ronnberg


1. G. Brown Goode, The Fisheries and Fishery Industries of the United States, Section III: The Fishing Grounds of North America (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1887), 39–41 and Chart No. 10, “Fishing Grounds from Cape Ann to Buzzard’s Bay, Mass.”

2. United States Coast Pilot – Atlantic Coast: Part III, from Cape Ann to Point Judith (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1893), 31.

3. Ibid., 22.

4. Goode, Ibid., 39, 40, and Chart No. 10.

5.Claude M. Fuess and Scott H. Paradise, The Story of Essex County (New York: The American Historical Society, Inc., 1935), Vol. 1, 376–378, 435, 436.

6. Ibid., Vol. 2, 1038, 1039.

Related Work in the Catalog

Supplementary Images

Proposed viewpoint of Lane when creating the picture. Viewpoint plottings by Erik Ronnberg using U.S... [more]. Coast Survey sketch chart of Gloucester Harbor 1855.

Provenance (Information known to date; research ongoing.)

Private collection, Boston
Mr. and Mrs. Harrison G. Reynolds, Beverly Farms, Mass., c. 1940
Mr. and Mrs. Kennedy B. Middendorf, Oyster Bay, N.Y.
Middendorf Galleries, Washington, D.C.
Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, Upperville, Va., 1985
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1992

Exhibition History

Coe Kerr Gallery, New York, New York, American Luminism, October 25–November 25, 1978., no. 4, Sailboats Becalmed Off Halfway Rock, erroneously dated 1863.
National Gallery of Art, Washington, District of Columbia, Paintings by Fitz Hugh Lane, May 15–September 5, 1988., no. 41, ill. in color, p. 91.
Traveled to: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Mass., 5–31, 1988.
National Gallery of Art, Washington, District of Columbia, Art for the Nation: Gifts in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art, March 17–June 16, 1991., ill. in color, pp. 150–51.
National Gallery of Art, Washington, District of Columbia, An Enduring Legacy: Masterpieces from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, November 7, 1999–February 27, 2000.
Tate Modern, London, United Kingdom, American Sublime: Landscape Painting in the United States, 1820–1880, February 20–May 19, 2002., no. 68, ill.
Traveled to: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pa., 17–25, 2002; Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis, Minn., 22–17, 2002.

Published References

Wilmerding, John. Fitz Hugh Lane: The First Major Exhibition. Lincoln, MA: De Cordova Museum; in association with Colby College Art Museum, 1966., no. 17, ill., cover, Half-Way Rock. ⇒ includes text
Fitz Hugh Lane 1804-1865. Rockland, ME: William A. Farnsworth Library and Art Museum, 1974., no. 35, Off Half Way Rock.
"Lure of the Maine Coast: Paintings by Fitz Henry Lane." Down East Magazine (October 1988)., pp.52-53.
Wilmerding, John. Paintings by Fitz Hugh Lane. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art; in association with Harry N. Abrams, 1988., no. 41, ills. in color, cover and p. 91, Becalmed Off Halfway Rock.
Cikovsky, Nicolai, Jr., and Franklin Kelly. "Art for the Nation: The National Gallery Collects." Antiques 139 (March 1991)., pl. 2, ill. in color.
Moses, Michael A. "Mary B. Mellen and Fitz Hugh Lane." Antiques Magazine Vol. CXL, No. 5 (November 1991)., p. 832. ⇒ includes text
Kelly, Franklin, with Nicolai Cikovsky Jr., Deborah Chotner, and John Davis. American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part I: The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1996., ill. in color, pp. 410–12.
Moore, Thomas R. "'This Magic Moonshine': Fitz Hugh Lane and Nathaniel Hawthorne." American Art XII (Fall 1998). ⇒ includes text
Wilton, Andrew, and Tim Barringer. American Sublime: Landscape Painting in the United States, 1820–1880. London: Tate Publishing, 2002., cat. 68, ill. in color, p. 193, text, pp. 192, 254, 270.
H. Travers Newton, Jr. "Fitz Henry Lane's Series Paintings of 'Brace's Rock': Meaning and Technique." Terra Foundation for American Art. Unpublished report., Becalmed Off Halfway Rock. ⇒ includes text
Citation: "Becalmed Off Halfway Rock, 1860 (inv. 344)." Fitz Henry Lane Online. Cape Ann Museum. http://fitzhenrylaneonline.org/catalog/entry.php?id=344 (accessed May 24, 2024).
Record last updated March 31, 2017. Please note that the information on this and all pages is periodically reviewed and subject to change.
Please share your knowledge with us: click here to leave feedback.