Few titles are as overt as Ships in Fog, Gloucester, Massachusetts, but I maintain that this wonderful Fitz Henry Lane piece is actually not about boats nor harbors nor indeed anything maritime. Before you conclude that I’ve gone off the deep end, let me qualify that statement: ships and the sea certainly inform the painting’s premise, but they’re not its primary preoccupation. The painting is about atmosphere. It both strives and succeeds in rendering nothing less than air itself.
If that all sounds a bit rarified, I must confess that I overlooked this masterpiece entirely until very recently. Despite boasting substantial dimensions and a central spot in the American Gallery, Ships in Fog lacks the visual punch of Bierstadt’s even larger Mt. Adams, which hangs a few feet away and monopolizes attention like little else. I suppose it’s understandable—I just told you that Lane’s painting is about air. That’s decidedly thin, wispy stuff up against alpenglow luxuriantly illuminating a craggy, snow-packed peak.
Happily, my ignorance of Lane was shattered at a lunch last month with Museum Director James Christen Steward. We weren’t in front of it, but Steward cited Lane’s painting as an example which seemed to perfectly anticipate a movement to come. It’s a truism that no one can tell the future, but in Lane’s case the premonition was extraordinary. Decades before Monet and his compatriots were credited with impressionism across the pond, Ships in Fog typified much of that iconic movement’s subject matter and style.
From the 1870s onwards, impressionism concerned itself with capturing the shifting qualities of light, individualized perceptions of one’s surroundings, and nothing less than the air itself. In pursuit of such airy aims, both the impressionist masters and Lane employed maritime vocabularies. Fittingly, Lane’s piece reminds me of two coastal paintings by Eugène Boudin, Monet’s teacher, found in the nearby European Gallery. Ships and the coast may provide the visual sustenance in Lane’s painting, filling the canvas, but they’re not the reason the American became hungry to paint in the first place. Yes, the ships ground the painting, but their transitory presence and comparatively puny size give Lane license to revel in the fog that envelops them.
It’s easy to appreciate the sheer mastery of the composition. Lane realizes the fog brilliantly; it imbues the whole painting with smoky opalescence. The haziness of objects in the distance (including a splendid little lighthouse) is stunningly realistic, but even better is the haziness of the air itself. How Lane makes something you can’t actually see visible on his canvas is beyond me, but it’s an impressive illusion.
The sun is one of my favorite details. Lane came to be known for what was retrospectively called luminism, an American style tied to big names such as Frederic Edwin Church and notable for its exploration of pronounced lighting effects. Here, the sun reminds me of the same celestial body in Monet’s quintessential Impression, Sunrise; both look like smoldering embers, as if the world’s largest live coal has been affixed to the sky. But Lane’s sun does even more. Amidst the foggy obscurity, his sun heralds in an epic Tolkienesque dawning. The light is simultaneously sublime and subtle, at once peachy and stark, somehow both warmly emanative and confined by the refractive fog. Such adroit juxtaposition is perhaps the painting’s most outstanding quality.
The sun illuminates the sea for the two figures in the rowboat (some conjecture that they are none other than Lane himself and a companion). With its amber glassiness, the sea seems a walkable, solid surface, and the linear reflection of the sun upon the water makes an obvious path that recedes with the utmost straightness. The rowboat is turned to meet the light, the figures bravely embracing what lies ahead. Their indicated course, towards the horizon, instills a sense of human agency, even as the swirling fog conceals most everything else. It’s a moment of unparalleled majesty.
If we say that Fitz Henry Lane was an impressionist before such a thing existed, a true American original, then Princeton’s Ships in Fog is surely one of the purest embodiments of that claim.