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Discoveries: Fitz Henry Lane

James A. Craig

A curator and lecturer specializing in 19th-century American marine art, author James A. Craig first became enamored with New England's maritime saga while studying Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts. He resides in the fishing port of Gloucester, Mass., with his wife Katie.

Fitz Henry Lane as art teacher to William Bradford

Published: August 04, 2010 17:39 Last Updated: May 19, 2011 21:15
  • Fitz Henry Lane, The Yacht “America” Winning the International Race, 1851.  Collection of Peabody Essex Museum.

    Fitz Henry Lane, The Yacht “America” Winning the International Race, 1851. Collection of Peabody Essex Museum.

    Courtesy of the author

  • Fitz Henry Lane, The Clipper Ship Northern Light, 1851, Collection of India House, New York City.

    Fitz Henry Lane, The Clipper Ship Northern Light, 1851, Collection of India House, New York City.

    Courtesy of the author

  • William Bradford, Clipper Ship Northern Light of Boston, c.  1854, Hart Nautical Collections, MIT Museum.

    William Bradford, Clipper Ship Northern Light of Boston, c. 1854, Hart Nautical Collections, MIT Museum.

    Courtesy of the author

Ever since scholars began to pry into the life of the 19th century American marine painter Fitz Henry (formerly Hugh) Lane, they have been aware of Lane’s role as an art instructor to a Mrs. Mary Mellen, a personal friend of Lane’s and the unfortunate possessor of limited artistic skills.  So narrow has the academic focus been upon Mary Mellen that over time a belief has arisen declaring her to have been Lane’s only student.  Yet in-depth analysis of significant paintings combined with new testimony penned by a Mr. John Trask, Fitz Henry Lane’s next door neighbor, close personal friend, and patron, has revealed that Lane gave instruction in the fine arts to America’s other great marine painter of the 19th century, William Bradford.

 Art historians have long suspected a connection between Lane and Bradford, noting how “Lane’s style had a deep influence on Bradford’s early work and… his [Lane’s] work was Bradford’s greatest source of guidance and inspiration in the latter’s first decade of painting.”[i]  As well, they have observed how “the treatment of water and sky [in Bradford’s works] show the strong influence of Lane,”[ii] and that “Bradford was to borrow from Lane’s methods to create these effects [luminous light and atmosphere].”[iii]  Yet if Bradford were truly a student of Lane’s in any serious capacity, we would expect to see more than a shared interest in subject matter and find (as we do with Mary Mellen) actual copies of Lane canvases executed by Bradford.  Happily, we do. 

 It would appear that Lane’s influence on Bradford predated the year 1852,[iv] as ample similarities in subject, color palette and brushwork between Bradford’s Schooner Yacht America at Cowes, England, ca.1852, [click here for image]   and Lane’s The Yacht “America” Winning the International Race, 1851, [shown here] reveal a shared interest in a particular subject matter and source material.

When holding Lane’s portrait of the clipper ship Northern Light executed in 1851 beside Bradford’s 1853 portrait of that same vessel the presence of Lane’s instruction in Bradford’s work becomes unquestionable.  Compositional similarities abound: From electing to position the same ship in the same two dimensional profile to such telling details as placing Boston Light at the same exact spot off the Northern Light’s stern and inserting a male and female figure on the ship’s bow in a nearly identical fashion, Bradford closely shadows his teacher’s lead.  However, Bradford also decided to engage in a bit of his own expressiveness, electing to move the pilot schooner Lane had placed off the clipper’s stern up at the bow, having the clipper displaying a bit more sail, and rendering the diagonally cresting water a bit more choppy.

Final confirmation that Lane served as Bradford’s instructor is to be found in the abovementioned testimony of John Trask, who bluntly states in a brief biographical sketch of Lane dictated circa 1885, “Bradford studied with him [Lane].”[v]  With this testimony from a knowledgeable contemporary source and examples of Bradford actively copying Lane’s handiwork to back up said testimony, a new picture of Lane as an artistic instructor now emerges.  Undoubtedly, further research will only uncover more accomplished students of Fitz Henry Lane.

For more information about the art and life of Fitz Henry Lane, Mr. Craig’s book Fitz H, Lane: An Artist’s Voyage Through 19th Century America (The History Press, 2006) is recommended.


[i] Ronnberg, Erik A. R., Jr.: WILLIAM BRADFORD: Mastering Form and Developing a Style, 1852 – 1862, (essay) found within Kugler, Richard C.: WILLIAM BRADFORD: Sailing Ships & Arctic Seas. New Bedford Whaling Museum, in association with The University of Washington Press, Seattle and London, 2003, Pg. 55

[ii] Ronnberg, Erik A. R., Jr.: WILLIAM BRADFORD: Mastering Form and Developing a Style, 1852 – 1862, (essay) found within Kugler, Richard C.: WILLIAM BRADFORD: Sailing Ships & Arctic Seas. New Bedford Whaling Museum, in association with The University of Washington Press, Seattle and London, 2003, Pg. 64

[iii] Ronnberg, Erik A. R., Jr.: WILLIAM BRADFORD: Mastering Form and Developing a Style, 1852 – 1862, (essay) found within Kugler, Richard C.: WILLIAM BRADFORD: Sailing Ships & Arctic Seas. New Bedford Whaling Museum, in association with The University of Washington Press, Seattle and London, 2003, Pg. 58

[iv] Ronnberg, Erik A. R., Jr.: WILLIAM BRADFORD: Mastering Form and Developing a Style, 1852 – 1862, (essay) found within Kugler, Richard C.: WILLIAM BRADFORD: Sailing Ships & Arctic Seas. New Bedford Whaling Museum, in association with The University of Washington Press, Seattle and London, 2003, Pg. 62

[v] 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

 



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