In what has been described as “one of the most significant purchases” in the Princeton University Art Museum’s modern history, Ship in Fog by Luminist master Fitz Henry Lane (1804-65) has been added to the museum collection. “The painting dramatically bolsters the museum’s esteemed holdings of American art, particularly American Luminism, and will substantially increase the collection’s utility as a research and teaching resource,” the museum said in a release announcing the acquisition.
Ship in Fog, above left, complements other works in the Art Museum’s American collection, including Winslow Homer’s watercolor masterpiece Eastern Point Light (1880), above right, executed from the same location as Ship in Fog but looking out to sea rather than inward. Other complementary works in the Princeton collection are John Kensett’s late Luminist Lake George (ca. 1870); and James Buttersworth’s Clipper Ship “Staghound” (ca. 1855).
“This superb example of 19th-century Luminism will significantly advance the Museum’s missions of facilitating teaching, scholarship, outreach, and excellence at Princeton,” said James Steward, the Art Museum director. “This painting was among the greatest works by Lane still in private hands, and we are grateful for the foresight and generosity of donors past and present for making this seminal acquisition possible.”
Ship in Fog was acquired from a private collection in New York. In 2002, it was sold for $904,500. In 2004 the auction house Skinner set a record for selling a Fitz Henry Lane painting (Manchester Harbor) for $5.5 million. The cost of the museum’s acquisition was not disclosed, but the purchase was made possible by the Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund; the Kathleen C. Sherrerd Program Fund for American Art; and Celia A. Felsher and John L. Cecil, both of the Class of 1976.
According to the museum’s statement, “Ship in Fog (oil on canvas, ca. 1860), is set in Gloucester Harbor from the vantage point of the open water, looking toward land. Lane rendered several seagoing vessels in a shroud of fog illuminated by the hazy late-afternoon sun, with the harbor’s Ten Pound Island and its lighthouse barely visible in the middle distance. In sharper focus in the foreground appear the backs of two figures in a rowboat and a meticulously rendered schooner brig at anchor nearby. It has been suggested that the figures in the rowboat may represent the artist himself and a friend working as an assistant, per Lane’s practice of initially sketching compositions from the water.
“The painting’s subject, however, is arguably the fog itself, the most difficult of atmospheric conditions for a painter to render. Lane’s mastery of the subject comes from his late period, when his assurance and expressiveness combined to create canvases of both timeless harmony and visual logic, infused with a profound quietude.”
Karl Kusserow, the museum’s curator of American art, noted that “in certain great works of his late career, Lane gravitated away from portrayal of the crystalline light that served as an essential feature of his early maturity and toward an exploration of more complex atmospheric conditions, such as fog. Although Ship in Fog portrays a relatively modest scene — a variety of ordinary craft in a sizable but not major port at the end of a late-summer day — what makes the painting extraordinary is Lane’s ability, unsurpassed in American art, to impart a resonant grandeur to such moments, as if to impress them both in time and for all time.”
Born in Gloucester, Massachusetts, north of Boston, Lane was the son of a sailmaker and was crippled from childhood. He began his painting and printmaking career as a portraitist of ships, experimenting with the effects of light in various marine and coastal scenes.
According to the museum statement, “19th-century Luminists took elements from European Romanticism and from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Transcendentalist views on the individual and nature to inaugurate a uniquely American style of atmospheric stillness and clarity of detail derived from direct observation.” The Luminists were “keenly interested in portraying the character and poetry of light as well as the union of the material and the spiritual.”