The master & Mary Blood Mellen
A provocative show brings Fitz Henry Lane and a student back together
GLOUCESTER -- "Standing on the bare ground -- my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space -- all mean egotism vanishes," wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in his 1836 essay "Nature." "I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all. . ."
Curator John Wilmerding quotes Emerson in the catalog for "Fitz Henry Lane & Mary Blood Mellen: Old Mysteries and New Discoveries," a fascinating and provocative exhibit at the Cape Ann Historical Museum that compels viewers to compare works by Lane, a master of the luminous seascape, and Mellen, his student, assistant, Gloucester neighbor, and sometime collaborator.
With his exquisite detail and nearly invisible brushwork, Lane embodied that transparent eyeball. His works breathe in the blithe air and the possibilities of infinite space. This exhibit, which juxtaposes nearly identical works by Lane and Mellen, makes that clear: Lane's skies had ethereal substance; beside them, Mellen's look gaudy and cluttered.
The show invites viewers to consider some unanswered questions about Lane. Some are historical, such as the enigma of Lane's name: Until two years ago, he was known as Fitz Hugh Lane. In a lecture at the museum in 2004, Wilmerding, now a professor emeritus at Princeton, wondered why Lane had, at the age of 27, changed his name from Nathaniel Rogers Lane to Fitz Hugh Lane. The Gloucester Archives Committee took up the challenge and discovered a letter Lane had written to the Massachusetts General Court in 1831 requesting that his name be changed to Fitz Henry. Indeed, he had signed two paintings "Fitz Henry Lane" -- rare occasions in which he spelled out his middle name. Somehow, between the time he faded into obscurity after his death and his rediscovery in the 1930s, "Hugh" mistakenly crept into usage.
But the question of Mellen's participation in Lane's painting process is more intriguing. Artists have worked with assistants and apprentices for centuries; often a canvas coming out of the studio of Rubens or Bellini, say, may have had the artist's signature, but was the handiwork, in part, of an assistant.
Wilmerding puts works by Lane and Mellen side by side to elucidate their techniques. Often Mellen copied directly from Lane, so the canvases appear to be twins. Mellen, the childless wife of a minister, had studied art in school. Working with Lane, she proved to be deft and light-handed, a very good painter with a penchant for yellows.
But Lane was a master. Look at Lane's "Owl's Head, Penobscot Bay, Maine" (1862) beside Mellen's copy, called "Owl's Head" (1860s). His sky is open; she has the same clouds, but they're more sharply defined. Her sky is yellow, his a soft peach. The result: Lane's sky quietly envelops; it calls you in to rest. Mellen's calls attention to itself, like light opera, declaring, "Aren't I bright and quick and clever?"
Under the vast canopy of his sky, Lane has more to offer. His details, even on the island in the distance, pop: A house catches the light and tosses it back over the water. Mellen did not have his fine hand with minutiae.
Lane, the son of a sailmaker, knew boats, and you can see it in seascapes such as "A Storm, Breaking Away, Vessel Slipping Her Cable" (1858). The rigging is perfect and taut; you can feel the boat's weight as a wave heaves up and rocks it. His composition sets ship, sea, and sky twisting in a funnel of weather around the rising sun. Mellen's version, "Ship at Anchor on a Lee Shore" (1868), is impressive; she copies the whorling quality of Lane's painting, yet the waves and the clouds look unfortunately orderly. The boat appears to ride too high in the water, and the rigging looks soft as a spider's web.
In 1859, they each painted Mellen's house in works titled "Blood Family Homestead." Here, Mellen doesn't appear to have copied Lane's canvas, but she paints the scene from the same perspective. Her version is both more dramatic and less refined. Lane captures each leaf so a tree bristles; he puts a figure near a back gate and leaves the front door open to make the place homey. Mellen's leaves blur; she has no figures and the door is closed, but the sun sets romantically behind the house.
Mellen was a good painter, one Lane clearly approved of. One work in this show is signed by both. The viewer can puzzle out who did what in "Coast of Maine" (1850s), but it's likely that Lane painted the lovely fir trees and craggy cliffs in the foreground, and Mellen filled in the warm yellow sky in the rear.
The bigger question is whether Mellen helped out with other works. Lane painted a series of canvases depicting Brace's Rock in Gloucester in 1863 and 1864, during the last years of his life. He was ailing; the Civil War was raging; a fire swept through Gloucester. Two works on view here, in which a broken-down old boat has run aground, might reflect his state of mind; they are sweetly mournful in a delicate afternoon light.
Another, "Coming Ashore Near Brace's Rock, Gloucester, Massachusetts" (1860s), attributed to Lane, in which a sailor pulls a boat ashore, features areas drawn well and others drawn more roughly; the rocks have a softness that looks more like the work of Mellen's hand.
It may be impossible to determine what role Mellen played in Lane's Brace's Rock paintings, or others. We know, looking at a Fitz Henry Lane painting, that it's good, but Mellen's work shows us why. She tried, sometimes successfully, to copy his technique, his details, color, and composition. But at least in these paintings, she never got to the point where "mean egotism vanishes" -- the surrender that leads to mastery.