Boston Harbor

about 1850–55
Fitz Henry Lane (American, 1804–1865)


66.04 x 106.68 cm (26 x 42 in.)

Accession Number


Medium or Technique

Oil on canvas

On View

Dr. Lawrence H. and Roberta Cohn Gallery (Gallery 235)





Gloucester, Massachusetts, native Fitz Henry Lane was at the height of his career by 1850, when he executed this grand and tranquil scene of the bustling port of Boston. From the vantage of a hill in East Boston, a perspective popularized in printed views of the city, Lane suggests topographical accuracy in his carefully constructed scene of vessels dispersed before the horizon. Prominent features of the city such as the Massachusetts State House and the Old South Church are clearly visible, but Lane lowered the horizon line to convey a sense of the expansive harbor. Like Thomas Cole [47.1201]and Frederic Edwin Church [1982.419], Lane was capable of achieving an extraordinary balance between reality and the ideal. Here he delicately combines the topography of the port with his idealized version of the scene; his romantic seascape is suffused with a sense of calm and quietude.
Lane was largely self-taught, although he was a quick study of those resources available to him. As an apprentice in the Boston lithography shop of William S. Pendleton, he was known for his careful draftsmanship that enabled him to render all the details of different sailing vessels. While he honed his drawing skills producing popular prints, Lane also absorbed the lessons of British-born painter Robert Salmon, who settled in Boston in 1828 and flourished as a marine painter [27.356]. Lane’s Boston Harbor recalls Salmon’s handling of topographical details and his use of familiar devices, such as the small boat being rowed toward the horizon that provides a sense of scale.

Lane portrays the calm waters with his characteristic luminosity. The elegiac quality of the scene is also typical of Lane; his paintings often depict the end of the day and evoke the end of an era. At the time Lane was painting his ambitious scenes of the major Massachusetts ports of Boston, Salem, and Gloucester, which likely appealed to patrons engaged in the shipping industry, the Erie Canal had diverted much of the traffic that would have passed through those destinations to New York. The encroaching world of steam power, which dominated the Hudson River corridor from Albany to New York City, is indicated here by the appearance of a white steam ship entering the harbor at the far right.

This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).


Probably Amanda Hill (Mrs. Charles M.) Peirce (1836-1922), New Bedford, Mass.; by descent to her daughter, Annie Pierce (Mrs. Willis E.) Lougee (born 1861), New Bedford; by descent to her daughter, Grace Howland (Mrs. Moses M.) Sargeant (1881-1965), New Bedford; about 1960, by descent to her daughter, Anne Sargeant (Mrs. Thomas W.) Farnsworth, Jr., New Bedford; 1966, sold by Anne Sargeant Farnsworth to the MFA. (Accession Date: February 17, 1966)

Credit Line

M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Paintings, 1815–1865, by exchange