Fitz Henry Lane, “View of Camden Mountains from Penobscot Bay,” Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
Fitz Henry Lane, “View of Camden Mountains from Penobscot Bay,” Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
In 1851, Curtis Island Lighthouse (as it is known today) at the entrance to Camden Harbor, Maine, burned to the ground. Reconstruction began immediately and was completed by 1852. The inclusion of a construction derrick just to the left of the lighthouse in "View of Camden Mountains from Penobscot Bay," ca. 1852 (12 x 18 inches) by the noted 19th-century marine painter Fitz Henry Lane (1804 - 1865), confirms an approximate date for the work of 1852.

Lane first came to Maine in 1848 at the invitation of his friend Joseph L. Stevens, whose home in Castine, on Deer Isle, became Lane's base for frequent painting excursions throughout Penobscot Bay and its island-dotted archipelago until his death in 1865. Here, at the intersection of human industry and natural beauty, Lane discovered a new kind of sublime defined by a quality of light and atmosphere that has come to be called luminism.

Like many of Lane's best works, the tightly finished final painting simultaneously evokes natural grandeur and human intimacy. The visual scope of this relatively small image is panoramic, yet the foreground activity appears close enough for one to hear bits of the rowers' conversation and their oars slapping the water. The artist's precise rendering of detail, visible in the varied and type-specific ships' riggings, gives his painting an almost hyperreal intensity that is part of its mystery and appeal.

On the right, a sturdy, gaff-rigged fishing boat, its sail nearly slack in the dead-calm air, slowly makes its way toward the harbor just to the west, behind the sheltering island. At lower left, the two figures in the small open boat headed toward the island lead the eye further into the painting. It is tempting to see this smaller boat and its occupants as a kind of self-portrait of the artist and a reference to his creative process. Lane lost use of his legs as an infant through an unknown cause. With limited physical mobility, he relied on the assistance of his friend and patron Stevens, whose boat provided the painter with transportation to artistic vantage points along Penobscot Bay's indented shoreline as well as the coast of Massachusetts, especially Gloucester and Boston harbors.

More than simply a topographic representation of a particular place and time, Lane's gemlike painting set in the waning hours of daylight is a visual catalogue of all the essential characteristics of the luminist style: stillness, quietude, and the enveloping suffusion of light that unifies the pictorial space.

His "View of Camden Mountains" suggests "nature's infinitude" through a nearly cloudless sky dissolving into a distant horizon. It is equally, in terms of mid-19th-century religious thought and in light of the gathering storm clouds in the decade before the Civil War, a view of humanity's infinitude and harmonious persistence within God's grand design, as, perhaps, the lighthouse construction derrick attests.

Today, Maine lighthouses have become something of a tourist art-and-photography cliché. But for Lane and other mid-19th-century Americans, who well understood the hazards and rigors of navigating the New England coast and especially Maine's treacherous, often barely submerged ledges, lighthouses played an instrumental role in facilitating travel, settlement and commerce. In Lane's quiet, spiritual worldview, lighthouses also provide succor and guidance. They are beacons in strange and unfamiliar terrain, even at the farthest reaches of human presence. For Lane, the lighthouse points toward the godhead that may be seen to reside most clearly and reassuringly in the still air before a blazing, evanescent sunset.