Mapping the Metaphysical Landscape off Cape Ann: The Receptions of Ralph Waldo Emerson's Transcendentalism among the Gloucester Audience of Reverend Amory Dwight Mayo and Fitz Hugh Lane

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One of the most intriguing yet elusive areas of scholarship concerning the 19th century marine artist Fitz Hugh Lane (1804-1865) is the connection between his luminist style and Ralph Waldo Emerson's (1803-1882) transcendental philosophy. This influence has been observed in Lane's depictions of the New England coast enveloped in soft atmospheric hues of meditative stillness, which seem to provide an aesthetic counterpart to the romantic nature philosophy of his contemporary Emerson.1 Cape Ann served as the inspiration for some of Lane's greatest luminist paintings. After the artist returned from Boston to Gloucester permanently in 1848, he continued to paint landscapes and seascapes of the area for the rest of his life. Emerson frequently lectured in Gloucester during the same period, and recorded the profound impact which the region had on him.

As two major cultural figures in the 19th century American Renaissance, Lane and Emerson have been the primary focus of scholarly attention and numerous studies and exhibitions. A less traveled path which forms a tangential but subordinate area of interest is the question of audience. A survey of references to Emerson and transcendentalism by Gloucester residents who patronized Lane provides new insights into context of meaning their literature and art held for ordinary citizens. Oftentimes relegated to the anonymity of unpublished or outdated materials in the archives of small historical societies, the writings of relatively undistinguished local residents assume greater significance in the absence of extant records of the artist's own intentions. While Lane's thoughts on transcendentalism are unavailable, those of his friends, patrons, clergymen and others are extant in a number of sources. These primary historical sources, many of which have never been published or discussed in a secondary or modern source, serve to illuminate a variety of nuances in the philosophical lens through which Lane's paintings were perceived by his contemporaries.

In recognized scholarship, Lane's general proximity to Emerson in time, place and mood has been deemed sufficient to acknowledge a literary and visual correlation between the philosopher's views on nature and the artist's representation of nature, while the lack of any documentary evidence has precluded the attribution of a direct causal relationship between the two. Nonetheless, ascribing a literary source to a non-narrative visual product remains tenuous without a verbal indication by the artist that he or she intended to illustrate a specific program of aesthetic philosophy. One can only state with certainty that the literary expressions of romantic nature philosophy and the reflection of nature in the luminist style were inspired by a common aesthetic response to the New England coastal region in which Lane's hometown of Gloucester, Massachusetts is situated. The beauty of Cape Ann was a common point of reference for its residents and anyone who viewed Lane's paintings could appreciate them on some aesthetic level. Whether this aesthetic quality also took on a metaphysical significance tempered by Emersonian philosophy depended upon the philosophical or denominational orientation of the viewer.

There were broadly divergent opinions about Emerson which ranged from outright ridicule to cautious acceptance with crucial reservations. Emerson's idiosyncratic philosophy was not easy to digest, and was regarded by many as a radical concept which challenged contemporary economic and religious beliefs. As such, the term "transcendental" sometimes took on pejorative connotations. As we shall see, outward opposition to transcendentalism in certain social circles was overcome through the ministry of the Universalist Reverend Amory Dwight Mayo (1823-1907). Mayo was inspired by Emerson's writings, but distinguished his beliefs from those aspects of transcendentalist philosophy which his audience found offensive. The most essential aspects of Emerson's philosophy which Mayo found compatible with his own theology were his belief in the divinity of nature and its reflection in art. …