Painting the sublime, with documentary detail

The fresh-breezy character of this painting by 19th-century American artist Fitz Hugh Lane falls, in mood, midway between the poles of his art. The splendid and various ships he shows on the lightly choppy waves of "New York Harbor" are buoyant, safe, and self-possessed. They are not, as in other Lane paintings, becalmed. Nor are they plowing heroically through rough seas. In his work Lane masters the depiction of ships caught in both furious storm and utter calm - mostly the latter. His depictions of transcendent, lucid tranquility - Emersonian in feel - lift his art much above the pedestrian. His paintings are as much about the sublime, about beauty or divinity of weather and light - about awe-inspiring conditions and times - as they are about their immediate subject.

Lane was largely, but not exclusively, a marine painter. He depicted all sorts of vessels (with an accuracy that has proved valuable historically) at a time when naval architects were inventing many new ships to share the ocean with traditional craft.

New York was a place Lane visited, but his home ground was New England, particularly Gloucester, Mass., and Boston. He was, however, by no means just a topographical painter. While his paintings never appear formulaic, they cannot be seen as simply documentary - like photographs recording exact moments. Franklin Kelly, senior curator of British and American painting at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., writes that this painting "is virtually identical, even down to the type and placement of the vessels, and the arrangement of their sails, to the similarly sized 'Boston Harbor,' also of 1852." Distant landmarks on shore indicate "New York" or "Boston" as the location.

From this it may be inferred that Fitz Hugh Lane's interest was in paintings that were typical rather than specific. This one, in which the viewer is placed at sea rather than on shore, is as much about picturemaking as it is about New York's harbor or its vessels - as magnificently realized as the ships and sea are.

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