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Atlantic Light

May 2024
1min read

Fitz Hugh Lane’s seemingly traditional harbor scenes are now considered pioneering works of a unique artistic movement

Among the forgotten artists of the nineteenth century enthusiastically taken up by our own, few are as remarkable as Fitz Hugh Lane. Born in Gloucester, Massachusetts, in 1804, the son of a sailmaker, he was crippled at the age of eighteen months, probably by polio, although his contemporaries believed he had been poisoned by an apple of Peru—what we could call a tomato. For the rest of his life, Lane could walk only with the help of crutches.

From an early age Lane showed a talent for drawing, but his first job was as a shoemaker. “After a while,” as a nephew described it, “seeing that he could draw pictures better than he could make shoes, he went to Boston and took lessons in drawing and painting and became a marine artist. …”

Those lessons were not much by today’s standards; what Lane did was to find work at a lithographer’s workshop and learn whatever he could from the other artists employed there. He also seems to have studied paintings by Robert Salmon, an English marine artist working in Boston in the 1830s. Over the next thirty years Lane produced accurate scenes of ships and waterfronts, gradually earning respect along the New England coast—his corner of the already circumscribed world of marine painting. After his death in 1865, fashions in art favored realists and impressionists, and Lane passed out of vogue.

But lately the art world has been reexamining Lane’s paintings. By the end of his career, although Lane was still painting ships, his real subjects were storms, sunsets, the elusive properties of light. Scholars now consider this self-taught artist a pioneer in the movement known as luminism—the final, glorious flowering of the Hudson River school. Sixty of Lane’s most serene masterpieces will be on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., until September 5, when they will travel to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.


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