Fitz Hugh Lane, also known as Fitz Henry Lane), (19 December 1804 – 14 August 1865) was an American painter and printmaker of a style that would later be called Luminism, for its use of pervasive light.
Nathaniel Rogers Lane was born in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Long held to have been born into a family of limited means, it has recently been discovered that the Lane family enjoyed a fair modicum of wealth and largesse, given that his family owned a large residence within Gloucester’s fashionable Middle Street neighborhood, long the home to sea captains, ship owners, and other members of that town’s mercantile elite. His father, Jonathan Dennison Lane, was the apparent owner of a sail loft, supplying Gloucester’s merchant and fishing fleets with the tools necessary for plying their respective trades. Despite his having lived within a prosperous household Lane’s early childhood was marred with tragedy. His younger sister Sarah Ann Lane died when she was two years old. His (recently rediscovered) older brother Steven Lane passed on when fifteen years of age, and Lane’s father died when the artist was a mere eleven years old. A childhood illness once thought to be polio, but now identified as most likely being due to the accidental ingestion of Jimsonweed left Lane for the rest of his life stricken with limited mobility from the waist down.
Lane was by and large a self-taught artistic genius, not receiving any formal artistic training until the year 1832, when he successfully campaigned for employment within the Boston-based lithography firm of William and John Pendleton. Here he would train and work beside several of America’s finest up-and-coming artists, including Benjamin Nutting, George Loring, William Rimmer, Benjamin Champney, John W. A. Scott, Robert Cooke, and Nathaniel Currier. (As well he may have briefly worked beside Sophia Peabody Hawthorne during this time, wife of 19th century American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne.) At Pendleton’s Lane would gain several of the skills so essential to become a fine artist, yet in regards to formal instruction in the ways of oil painting it was most probably the Scots-English marine painter (and Pendleton employee) Robert Salmon who instructed Fitz Henry Lane in the finer points of marine painting.
Beginning in the early 1840’s Lane would declare himself publicly to be a marine painter while simultaneously continuing his career as a lithographer. He quickly attained an eager and enthusiastic patronage from several of the leading merchants and mariners in Boston, New York, and his native Gloucester. Lane’s career would ultimately find him painting harbor and ship portraits, along with the occasional purely pastoral scene, up and down the eastern seaboard of the United States, from as far north as the Penobscot Bay/Mount Desert Island region of Maine, to as far south as San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Recent scholarship has uncovered numerous new findings concerning Lane, not the least of which is that he was identified by the wrong name for nearly a century. In 1831 he applied to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to change his name to Fitz Henry Lane. At some point in the early 20th century, Lane's name became confused and was mistakenly believed to be Fitz Hugh Lane. He never signed any paintings as Fitz Hugh Lane, but twice signed as Fitz Henry Lane. Usually, his signature was F. H. Lane, Fitz H. Lane, or F. H. L.
Other findings have shed new light onto not only Lane’s artistic process but have also revealed him to have been a staunch social reformer, particularly within the Temperance Movement. As well, the long-held suspicion that Lane was a transcendentalist has been confirmed, and it has been uncovered that he was also a Spiritualist. Sensational claims that Lane was “a somewhat saddened and introspective figure…often prone to moodiness with friends,”(Wilmerding, John: Fitz Hugh Lane. Praeger Publishers, Inc., 1971, Pg. 20) and that his existence was one of “quiet loneliness,”(Wilmerding, John: Fitz Hugh Lane. Praeger Publishers, Inc., 1971, Pg. 39) have been disproven with the full quotation of the testimony of John Trask, a patron, friend, and next door neighbor of the artist, who states that Lane “was always hard at work and had no moods in his work. Always pleasant and genial with visitors. He was unmarried having had no romance. He was always a favorite and full of fun. He liked evening parties and was fond of getting up tableaux.”(Trask, John: Notes on the life of Fitz Henry Lane as given by John Trask of Gloucester to Emma Todd (now Mrs. Howard P. Elwell) about 1885. Collection of the Cape Ann Historical Association)
Long believed to have only given instruction to one artist during his career, (a local lady of limited artistic abilities named Mary Mellen) it has now been established that Lane was the instructor and mentor to several other artists, most importantly Benjamin Champney and America’s other great 19th century marine painter, William Bradford.
A contemporary of the Hudson River School, he enjoyed a reputation as America’s premier painter of marine subjects during his lifetime, but fell into obscurity soon after his death with the rise of French Impressionism. Lane’s work would be rediscovered in the 1930’s by the great art collector Maxim Karolik, after which his art steadily grew in popularity among private collectors and public institutions. His work can now command at auction prices ranging as high as three to five million dollars.