American Painting of the Nineteenth Century: Realism, Idealism, and the American Experience

By Barbara Novak | Go to book overview

6.
Fitz Hugh Lane

A PARADIGM OF LUMINISM

Standing on the bare ground--my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space--all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.

RALPH WALDO EMERSON

When Emerson wrote this famous statement, in Nature, in 1836, Fitz Hugh Lane ( 1804-65), a native of Gloucester, was in Boston serving as an apprentice to the lithographer William S. Pendleton. The following year, he worked with the Boston publishers Keith and Moore, and in 1845 formed his own business with John W. A. Scott. He returned to Gloucester about 1848. Shortly after, he built a stone house with a southeast studio and a view of the harbor, and he lived there until his death, apart from short trips to Maine, New York, Baltimore, and probably Puerto Rico. 1

There is no direct proof that Lane knew Emerson's essays or that he ever heard him on any of the frequent occasions when Emerson visited Boston, and even Gloucester, to lecture, though on the evidence at hand, it seems unlikely that he could have escaped him. 2 Lane left no diary and few letters, and we still know too little about him. Yet his art is perhaps the closest parallel to Emerson's Transcendentalism that America produced: of all the painters of the mid-century, he was the most "transparent eyeball."

It is tempting, therefore, to try to get at the root of his style, in order to understand more fully the genesis of luminist vision. My contention has been that luminist vision, and, indeed, the conceptual mode of much indigenous American art, has derived in part from the tempering of a continuous primitive tradition that has run parallel to the mainstream of sophisticated art in America. But the linear bias of American art, as noted earlier,

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