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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.

In 2006, the American art world was stunned to discover that it had been calling one of its most beloved artists by the wrong name. New research revealed that Fitz Hugh Lane (when alive) had actually been named Fitz Henry Lane. What other new revelations await?

Fitz Henry Lane’s Personal Life

  • Robert Cook, Lane at age 31, 1835, American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts

    Robert Cook, Lane at age 31, 1835, American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts

Given the enormous interest Fitz Henry (formerly Hugh) Lane’s artwork has generated over the years, it is perhaps only natural that little attention has been paid by scholars on Lane’s personal life. Further complicating matters is the fact that Lane left few artifacts beyond his artwork by which his daily life could be understood and “fleshed out.” With only a handful of private letters, newspaper clippings and reminiscences with which to guide us, an image of Lane has formed over time, one of a man who was dour, taciturn and lonesome. Contemporary quotes describing him as “nervous, quick, and dyspeptic,”[i] have been interpreted by certain art historians to somehow mean that Lane was also “a somewhat saddened and introspective figure…often prone to moodiness with friends,”[ii] and that his existence was one of “quiet loneliness.”[iii]

   Thankfully, new research has proven this image of Lane as a sad, lonely, moody recluse to not only be mistaken but patently false. By turning to the reminiscences of Lane’s friends and neighbors a new understanding of Lane emerges, one where he was recalled as being the possessor of a “characteristic kindness,”[iv] who would generously gift neighbors and acquaintances with artwork on such occasions as their weddings.[v]  A Mrs. Sarah Fischer and Charles Sawyer of Gloucester both reveal that Lane held no objection to children visiting and exploring his studio, letting them play in his garden, view his paintings, and even watch him at work as long as they promised “not to make any noise.”[vi] And upon his passing, eulogists would describe his life as having been “industrious, genial, and unpretending,”[vii] and remember him as being of a “pure and gentle spirit” that “won the respect and esteem of a refined circle of friends,” all while “his kindness of heart and obliging disposition attached him fondly to all.”[viii] And perhaps most tellingly John Trask, the very man whose testimony of Lane having been “quick, nervous, and dyspeptic,” has been used to proffer the idea that Lane was a moody loner, also informs us:

[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.[ix] 

A brief review of the testimonies of those who knew him reveals that Lane was a far more complex and amiable man than previously believed. In fact, not one account contemporary to when Lane was alive has surfaced featuring the adjectives “sad,” “moody,” “lonely” or any other words that would convey the same notions when describing him. Yet these revelations also pose a question: Why did previous authors on Lane choose to selectively quote the testimony of John Trask?  Why did they choose to willingly ignore Trask’s (and others) description of Lane as being “pleasant and genial” and focus solely upon his “quick, nervous, and dyspeptic” qualities, offering up a more sensational picture of Fitz Henry Lane in place of the truth?   


[i] 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

[ii] Wilmerding, John: Fitz Hugh Lane. Praeger Publishers, Inc., 1971, Pg. 20

[iii]Wilmerding, John: Fitz Hugh Lane. Praeger Publishers, Inc., 1971, Pg. 39

[iv] Babson, John J: History of the Town of Gloucester, Cape Ann. Procter Brothers, 1860 (Re-issued by Peter Smith Publisher, Inc. 1972), Pg. 258

[v] Mansfield, Helen: Fitz H. Lane. C.A.S.& L.A. Weekly Column on Matters of Local History, collection of the Cape Ann Historical Association

[vi] Babson, Susan: Fitz H. Lane. Undated newspaper article, collection of the Cape Ann Historical Association.

[vii] Cape Ann Light, August 19, 1865

[viii] Boston Daily Evening Transcript, August 19, 1865

[ix] 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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Fitz Henry Lane, The Yacht “America” Winning the International Race, 1851.  Collection of Peabody Essex Museum.
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Fitz Henry Lane, Sicilian Vespers, 1832, lithograph.
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