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The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art Acquires 'Starlight' in Harbor by American Painter Fitz Hugh Lane


The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in July 2002 announced the acquisition of 'Starlight' in Harbor by noted American marine painter Fitz Hugh Lane (1804-1865). The 24 by 36 inch oil on canvas was purchased for the Museum by Landon and Sarah Rowland to mark the inauguration of The Ever Glades Fund, a permanent endowment fund to acquire American art.

The Nelson-Atkins joins a number of respected institutions that own works by this leading mid-19th-century painter of sea and light. Among these are the White House and Washington's National Gallery of Art plus numerous museums in Lane's native New England, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Painted about 1855, 'Starlight' in Harbor is a highly ordered rendering of a clipper ship in translucent water against a bright blue morning sky. Lane's portrait depicts the Starlight at anchor, probably being unloaded. The massive ship commands the pictorial space, dwarfing its entire surroundings. (left: Fitz Hugh Lane, American, (1804-1865), "'Starlight' in Harbor," c. 1855, oil on canvas, 24 1/4 x 36 inches, Gift of Sarah and Landon Rowland through The Ever Glades Fund, 2002.8 )

Described by the Boston Daily Atlas on its 1854 launch as the "most perfectly beautiful clipper ... yet produced," Starlight was among a new generation of merchant vessels built for speed. Boston's Baker and Merrill Shipping Co., which plied the long ocean routes of the China trade, likely commissioned this painting of its Starlight clipper.

"The painting is symbolic of America' s great shipping abilities in the mid-19th century," said Margi Conrads, Samuel Sosland Curator of American Art at the Nelson-Atkins. '"The clarity of light and air evokes the positive attitude of the day, and suggests America's vision as an up-and-coming world player."

Conrads characterized 'Starlight' in Harbor as "three pictures in one": An elegant ship portrait, a beautiful seascape with an active sky played against serene water, and a lively narrative, including African-American stevedores in animated conversation, a fisherman on the dock, and a boat, laden with goods, coming ashore. A broken mast floating in the center foreground may alternately suggest the superiority of the newest vessels or the fragility of the whole enterprise, she said.

Lane scholar Franklin Kelly, senior curator of American art and British paintings at the National Gallery of Art, called 'Starlight' in Harbor "a splendid addition to the distinguished collection of American paintings already in the Nelson-Atkins."

"It has precisely what you want in a Lane of this period: a detailed depiction of various maritime vessels, a lively record of harbor activities, and a harmonious, balanced composition," said Kelly, who contributed to the catalog for the 1988 National Gallery exhibition, Paintings by Fitz Hugh Lane.

"'Starlight' in Harbor attests to Lane's masterful painting of atmospheric light and air," Kelly said. "I find the sky in this example especially attractive, with the freely brushed white highlights in the clouds creating lively pictorial rhythm."

Lane lived most of his life in Gloucester, Mass., and his paintings of shipping allowed him both artistic expression and commercial success. After completing early training as a lithographer -- apparent in his detailed drawing and carefully designed compositions -- he painted a group of Boston Harbor pictures from 1853 to 1855, including a few ship portraits.

Lane's career was carried out almost entirely between Gloucester and Boston, punctuated by brief visits to Maine. He was well regarded locally in his lifetime, but his work was largely forgotten until the late 1940s.

'Starlight' in Harbor fills a gap in the mid-19th century holdings of the Nelson-Atkins. Within the scope of the Museum's American collection, the Lane canvas fits into a constellation of pictures from the period, when American painting shifted from literary allusions to more pointed expositions of the socio-political and cultural concerns of the day.

'Starlight' in Harbor joins mid-century landscapes ranging from George Caleb Bingham's Fishing on the Mississippi, 1851, to A Woodland Waterfall, circa 1855, and Welch Mountain, 1863, by Hudson River School masters John Frederick Kensett and Asher B. Durand, respectively.

The addition of the Lane to the Nelson-Atkins specifically expands the Museum's views of waterways used for commerce in the mid-19th century, Conrads said. As Bingham's Fishing on the Mississippi shows one of the two main frontier traffic arteries prior to Kansas City's railroads and stockyards, so Lane's 'Starlight in Harbor in the port of Boston provides a stunning narrative of trade on the East Coast.

Following is wall text from the exhibition of the painting

Fitz Hugh Lane's orderly and luminous "'Starlight' in Harbor" pays homage to the large ship anchored near the center of the painting. Built in 1854 by Baker and Merrill Shipping Company, "Starlight" was one of a new generation of clipper ships built for great speed, which facilitated international trade and aided in expanding the nation's economy. The setting is Boston Harbor, where a variety of vessels mingles peacefully. The painting's serene aura is animated by figures that work, fish, and converse throughout the composition.  

Born in Gloucester, Massachusetts, Lane was essentially untrained as a painter. His style combined precise drawing he learned as a printmaker's apprentice and atmospheric effects typical of British and American marine paintings available to him in Boston. Unlike many of his contemporaries, such as Asher B. Durand and Jasper Cropsey, who rendered America's grand landscape, Lane turned his attention to the country's equally impressive Eastern seaboard.  He is best known for his coastal views of Massachusetts and Maine.  


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