New York Harbor
Fitz Henry Lane (American, 1804–1865)
91.44 x 153.03 cm (36 x 60 1/4 in.)
Medium or Technique
Oil on canvas
Out on Loan
On display at Nagoya/Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Japan, February 18, 2018 – July 1, 2018
Lane probably traveled to New York City in the late 1840s, for by 1849 he had exhibited New York from Jersey City (location unknown) at the American Art-Union there, and then a second view, New York Harbor (location unknown) in 1850. The documented dimensions of the latter painting, 42 by 48 inches (106.7 by 121.9 cm), preclude it from being the MFA’s canvas, which measures 36 by 60 1/4 inches (91.4 by 153 cm), but the entry in the Art-Union catalogue could easily have described it: “Vessels of all kinds lying at anchor or sailing. In the distance the spires of the city.”Lane continued to produce scenes of New York Harbor well into the 1850s.
At the time that Lane painted its harbor, New York had become the nation’s busiest commercial seaport. The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 diverted traffic to New York from other East Coast cities. Lane’s view also documents technological change: the variety of vessels shows the transformation in shipping at mid-century from sail to engine-powered craft. At the left, a large merchant ship is being guided out of port by a tugboat. Just behind it, a brig is maneuvered by a paddle-wheeler, and a ferry—a side-wheeler, also under steam power—shuttles passengers across the water. More steam is visible from a smokestack on a small craft in the distance. 
Lane’s painting transcends the topographical. By the early 1850s he had achieved his mature painting style, characterized by carefully conceived compositions and delicate use of color and light. In New York Harbor, the profusion of boats is skillfully arranged. Lane divided them into two coherent groups, albeit asymmetrically, thereby opening up a pathway to a church spire at the right and to the sunset at the left. His composition bears similarities to the perspective diagrams in John Gadsby Chapman’s American Drawing-Book [1978.375], a publication that Lane, a largely self-taught artist, likely consulted. Lane also balanced light and dark, showing the sails in shadow in the foreground group on the left and illuminating those on the right. Luminous colors extend across the background as the warm yellows of sunlight transition into soft pinks at the right. The subtlety of the Lane’s palette had darkened over time, but conservation treatment undertaken by the MFA in preparation for the opening of the Art of the Americas wing in 2010 revealed the artist’s mastery anew, showing that he suffused this composition with the delicate light and the glowing color for which he is best known.
1. Catalogue of Works of Art, Purchased by the American Art-Union, New York, 1850.
2. Eric A. R. Ronnberg, Jr., “Imagery and Types of Vessels,” in Paintings by Fitz Hugh [sic] Lane (Washington D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1988), 73.
3. John Gadsby Chapman, The American Drawing-Book: A Manual for the Amateur, and Basis of Study for the Professional Artist: Especially Adapted to the Use of Public and Private Schools, as well as Home Instruction (New York: J. S. Redfield, 1847); see Elliot Bostwick Davis, Training the Eye and the Hand: Fitz Hugh [sic] Lane and Nineteenth Century American Drawing Books, exh. cat. (Gloucester, Mass.: Cape Ann Historical Association, 1993), 22–26.
Karen E. Quinn
Lower right: Fitz H Lane./185[?]
Probably 1940s sold at unknown auction, Brooklyn to Harry Stone Gallery, New York. 1946, with Charles D. Childs, Boston; 1946, sold by Charles D. Childs to Maxim Karolik, Newport, R.I.; 1948, gift of Maxim Karolik to the MFA. (Accession Date: December 9, 1948)
Gift of Maxim Karolik for the M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Paintings, 1815–1865