GLOUCESTER — We don’t know a lot about Fitz Henry Lane. The master of glorious light, atmosphere, and seafaring rigs left no journal behind, or any volumes of letters from which we might suss his disposition. A portrait drawn by Robert Cooke in 1835, when Lane was likely 30, renders him distinctly forlorn.
He was born in Gloucester and baptized Nathaniel Rogers Lane. His father died when he was 11 or 12. He regularly used crutches or a cane to get around. Before he moved to Boston in his late 20s to work in William S. Pendleton’s lithography shop, he changed his name to Fitz Henry.
Looking at his art, we can guess about his nature: his soothing, generative luminism; his breathtaking precision. “Drawn From Nature & on Stone: The Lithographs of Fitz Henry Lane,” at the Cape Ann Museum through March 4, traces the vital and necessary role printmaking played in the painter’s career. It was in Pendleton’s lithography shop that Lane, whose first job was as a shoemaker, apprenticed as an artist.
In “Drawn From Nature & on Stone,” guest curator Georgia B. Barnhill explores the nitty gritty of the artist’s career as a printmaker, as Lane used lithography to drill down into exacting depictions of ships’ riggings and townscapes. It’s revealing, albeit dry — a history exhibition perhaps more than an art show.
In 1832, when Lane began his career, lithography was a new technology, speedier and cheaper than engraving, making art and illustration more widely available to middle-class households. The work here is commercial: able and pragmatic. Designing lithographs, Lane developed his sense of perspective and a hawk’s eye for detail.
He became known for townscapes and city views, the Google Street Views of their day. Locals could buy them to hang on parlor walls or take as keepsakes when they left town. They would have something to point to: This is where I came from.
Such depictions helped formulate local identity. They were part map, part landscape, and, in a sense, part portrait. A similar spatial spread, “View of the Battle Ground at Concord, Mass.,” contributed to a sense of national identity. Over time, such works grew increasingly horizontal, conveying the breadth of American possibility in the particulars of its towns and cities.
Lane worked for a succession of print shops and ultimately owned one with a partner. Printing was a team project, and he might take charge of any or all steps along the way — designing, drawing on the lithography stone, printing, hand-coloring. Likewise, he took on a range of clients.
In 1840, the social reformer Dorothea Dix exposed the wretched conditions in prisons and asylums, and the news seeped into popular culture. Lane illustrated the sheet music for composer Henry Russell’s “The Maniac” with a handsome, well-kempt, shackled fellow, gesturing toward a light beyond the bars of his cell door like a penitent finding God. For a guy who sleeps in a pile of hay, he’s ridiculously alluring, but Lane was trying to sell song sheets, not make social commentary.
Though deft at figuration, the artist’s true skills came in faithful renderings of cities and ships. There’s some question about whether Lane employed a camera lucida to help record the minutiae of, say, a ship-clogged Boston Harbor with the State House poking up in the distance like a castle. Whether or not he did, he had a robust appetite for granular detail.
To make sketches for “View of the Battle Ground at Concord,” Lane hired young John S. Keyes to row him about in the Concord River. Years later, Keyes wrote that Lane’s depictions were “a very correct picture of the place as it then looked.” These grounding details — from the leaves on the foreground shrubbery to the articulation of rocks in walls ribboning through the fields — feel authenticating: Here is where American democracy began.
Lane made a life as a lithographer in Boston for about 15 years. In the late 1840s, he moved home to Gloucester, and took the leap to full-time painting.
Wandering through “Drawn From Nature & on Stone,” I began to develop a sense of the artist using his talents as a nitpicker for the common good. There’s a grinding quality to all that precision. It’s important, then, to step across the hallway to the museum’s excellent permanent display of Lane’s paintings.
As a lithographer, Lane employed color quite delicately, tinting or hand-coloring some of the prints. His penchant for capacious, laden skies can’t be missed. In “Castine, From Hospital Island,” a late print — he never fully let go of lithography, which had its own technical and monetary rewards — pale, yellowish clouds churn softly against a backdrop of darker ones.
Well enough done. But painting is color, and in Lane’s canvases — much more than in even his hand-colored prints — color suffuses shorelines and ships with an abundant, incalculable, embracing touch. The burst of platinum through clouds in “New England Harbor at Sunrise” and the warm rose twilight in “Norman’s Woe, Gloucester Harbor” introduce elemental sustenance to the scenes.
Lane was director of the Gloucester Lyceum when Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau came to speak there. We know nothing of the artist’s religious or spiritual beliefs, but his paintings, soaked in generous light, seem to open a wide window into Transcendentalism and balance the necessary fussiness of his prints.
DRAWN FROM NATURE & ON STONE: THE LITHOGRAPHS OF FITZ HENRY LANE
At Cape Ann Museum, 27 Pleasant St., Gloucester, through March 4. 978-283-0455, www.capeannmuseum.orgCate McQuaid can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.