Fitz Hugh Lane was an American master who was both self-invented and deeply rooted in his ancestral past. He was born Nathaniel Rogers Lane but changed his given name to Fitz Hugh. He contracted childhood polio at the age of eighteen months, which left him permanently lame. His disability may have contributed to a personality that was described by some as reclusive and others as generous and community-minded. He was entirely self-taught as an artist, moving in his art from a limner style to a sophisticated expression of the seascape tradition.
Born to a family whose members had been among the original settlers of Gloucester, Massachusetts, in 1623, Lane’s father was a sailmaker. Physically unable to join in neighborhood games, the artist had a relatively solitary childhood, with ample time available for him to develop his talent in drawing and sketching. Lane’s earliest surviving work, The Burning of the Packet Ship “Boston” (Cape Ann Historical Association, Gloucester, Massachusetts; see National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Paintings by Fitz Hugh Lane, exhib. cat. , p. 63 fig. 1 illus.), is an 1830 watercolor, based on a first-hand sketch of the destruction of a Gloucester-based packet boat after she was struck by lightning during a storm at sea. Lane first worked as a shoemaker, but quickly moved to a local lithography firm, Clegg and Dodge. (For the fullest biographical account of the artist, see John Wilmerding, Fitz Hugh Lane .) In the early 1830s, his work attracted the notice of William Pendleton, Boston’s premier lithographer, who invited Lane to join the Boston firm as an apprentice.
In 1832, Lane moved to Boston and set about becoming an artist in earnest. He worked as a lithographer and became a member of Boston’s artists’ community. While no details of any systematic study or instruction have come to light, Lane availed himself of all the art opportunities that Boston had to offer. This certainly included full exposure to the work of Washington Allston, the revered patriarch of Boston art, famous for his romantic landscapes of Italy. In 1828, Robert Salmon, an accomplished English painter of seascapes in the Dutch tradition, had moved to Boston and established a practice there. In 1834, while Lane was at Pendleton’s, Salmon lived in rooms behind the lithography shop and drew a number of Boston scenes for the firm, guaranteeing that Lane was also familiar with the English artist’s work. In 1836, Lane produced his first topographic view of his native town, a lithograph entitled View of the Town of Gloucester (Cape Ann Historical Association; see Wilmerding, op. cit., no. 5 illus.).
Lane’s progress as an artist can be followed in the lithographs he produced while in Boston. He learned principles of perspective as well as how to draw human figures. Lane’s earliest oil paintings date to 1840. In 1841, he listed himself as a marine painter in the Boston Almanac and submitted two works for exhibition, Scene at Sea, to the Boston Athenaeum, and Ship in a Gale, to the exhibition of the Apollo Association (later the American Art-Union) in New York City. Lane continued to paint and exhibit landscape views and marine themes. In 1844, he sent Gloucester Harbor to the “Nineteenth Exhibition of Paintings” at the Boston Athenaeum (Cape Ann Historical Association; see Wilmerding, op. cit., plate 1 facing p. 16 illus., as "Gloucester Harbor from Rocky Neck"). This was followed by a series of three topographical lithographs of Gloucester, New Bedford, and Newburyport. The Gloucester view was adapted from his oil painting and was available for the price of $1.00, or $1.50 for a version hand-colored by the artist. Lane’s lithographic career continued to prosper at the same time that he was building a substantial reputation as an oil painter.
By 1848, Lane felt secure and established enough to leave Boston and return home to Gloucester. He bought property on a height overlooking the harbor, and, with his sister and brother-in-law, commissioned and designed a granite house with seven gables (see National Gallery, op. cit., p. 11 illus.), a distinctive and commanding residence for a local artist whose reputation was increasingly attracting national attention.