Fitz Hugh Lane produced a significant group of paintings of Boston harbor in the early 1850s, and they mark his attainment of full artistic maturity. The majority embody a poetic sense of suspended time, although View of Boston Harbor is an exception. The drama of sky and water and the activity of the shipping relate it to seventeenth-century Dutch marine paintings, especially those of the younger Willem van de Velde.
The composition is not unique in Lane’s oeuvre. In a painting of New York Harbor also from the 1850s (private collection), the two largest vessels and the small foreground sailboat are nearly identical.1Wilmerding et al. 1988, 99, no. 37. Using his own drawings as reference, he economically repeated the design and position of ships in various compositions, although he was careful not to abuse this practice.
Despite the relative activity in the painting, View of Boston Harbor has a unity of tone that imparts a hushed note to the scene. Moreover, the commanding rhythms of the ocean swells are full, easy, and regular. The great clipper ship at right center is marked by animated rigging: taut lines contrast with free curving ones. The rigging, remarkably well preserved, has a crispness and clarity all the more impressive for being painted freehand with a fine brush.2Ronnberg, 64, 67. Within the open center of the picture, Lane frames the distant but distinctive dome of Charles Bulfinch’s State House, a feature of many of his Boston Harbor paintings.
In the development of a coherent space, Lane uses alternating bands of shadow and light on the water, a favorite device of Robert Salmon, his most important predecessor in American marine painting. Lane goes beyond Salmon, however, to develop a more varied perspective, which includes his skillful variation of the angle of view of his many vessels and their placement in space.
Many details delight and instruct the observer: for instance, the wit of Lane’s signature, inscribed in a concave arc that echoes the trough of the wave, or the steamer glimpsed in the far right background. The fact that in 1852 such vessels were far more prominent in Boston Harbor than in his painting of it suggests that Lane shared the common sentiment that the progress represented by steam power on land or on water threatened the ordained harmony between man and nature typified by majestic wind-powered ships.
Excerpted from Jonathan L. Fairbanks. Becoming a Nation: Americana from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State. New York: Rizzoli, 2003.