GLOUCESTER, Mass. — Fitz Hugh Lane, the Gloucester-born, internationally renowned painter whose work has sold for more than $5 million at auction, isn’t Fitz Hugh Lane at all.
Local researchers have unearthed proof that the maritime artist, who died in 1865, actually went by the less poetic handle of Fitz Henry Lane. It would be like learning Jerry Lee Lewis is really Jerry Steve Lewis, Edgar Allan Poe went by Edgar Darren Poe, or Mary Lou Retton is a Mary Alice.
How Hugh became Henry remains something of a mystery, but the revelation has created a stir in the arts community across the Northeast and in Gloucester, where Lane’s newly debunked handle graces everything from his Harbor Loop home to a statue in his honor to his gravestone at Oak Grove Cemetery.
John Wilmerding, a professor of American art at Princeton University who devoted much of the past 45 years to studying the luminist painter he thought was Fitz Hugh Lane, was startled and amused by the news.
“I guess I’m no longer the Fitz Hugh Lane authority,” quipped Wilmerding, a former deputy director at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and current visiting curator of the American art department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“What will this do to the Library of Congress cataloging and curatorial files across the country, collectors’ records and museum labels?” asked Wilmerding. “To think of the work that has to be done is confounding. Are people going to recorrect textbooks to say, ‘Fitz Henry Lane, formerly known as Fitz Hugh Lane?’ I don’t even want to think about it, the museum records, archive records, slides, photographs that need to be corrected.”
It was a standing-room only lecture by Wilmerding at the Cape Ann Historical Museum last September that triggered the research. Wilmerding concluded his lecture that day by posing many unanswered questions about the man who lived from 1804 to 1865. Chief among them: Why did the man born Nathaniel Rogers Lane decided to change his name to Fitz Hugh?
Intrigued, the Gloucester Archives Committee took up he challenge.
In October, archivist Jane Walsh found a copy of a name-change petition on the Internet. The petition said Nathaniel Rogers Lane wanted to change his name to Fitz Henry Lane.
Walsh and her peers thought there was a mistake made in transcribing the name, recalled Sarah Dunlap of the Archives Committee. But a group went to Boston and found the original letter in the state archives. Plain as day, it read “Fitz Henry Lane.”
“Then we were wondering when he changed his name to Fitz Hugh,” Dunlap said. “But the more we looked, the more we realized no paintings were signed Fitz Hugh Lane. We started looking at every use of the word, and we realized Fitz Henry was used right up to 1915.”
The archives committee titled its paper on the subject “Fitz Who? The Artist Latterly known as Fitz Hugh Lane.”
The name Fitz Hugh Lane is used all over the world. It calls up nearly 70,000 hits on www.google.com in English and other languages. The value of Lane’s paintings continue to set price records at auctions, now reaching the $5.5 million mark.
But none of the 40 pictures hanging in the Cape Ann Historical Museum on Pleasant Street bears the name “Hugh.” They are signed in variations of his name, including “Fitz H.,” “Lane,” “F.H. Lane” or “FHL.”
The time of the name change from Nathaniel Rogers Lane to Fitz Henry Lane coincides with when Lane changed his career and went to Boston to work as a lithographer and later a marine painter.
“He may have chosen an artist’s name to establish his identity as a declared artist in Boston,” speculated Wilmerding.
But how, decades after his death, did Fitz Henry become Fitz Hugh?
The first reference to Fitz Hugh Lane appeared in a short item in a 1938 newspaper.
The entry read: “For sale — View of Gloucester, 1859, Drawn by Fitzhugh Lane. L.H. Bradford lithograph. Large and fine. Price low. Richard Nichols Co., 22 Broomfield St., up one flight. Boston, Mass.”
Another source of the mistaken name turned up in 1938 when the two words “Fitz Hugh” appeared in a letter from the Frick Museum in New York to the Cape Ann Historical Association.
“We still don’t know why he changed his name, nor do we know who was the first person to call him Fitz Hugh, and everyone just assumed it was his name,” said Dunlap, the local researcher. “In the 1920s, he’s always referred to as Fitz H. Lane. We found nothing in the early 1930s. But by 1938, he became Fitz Hugh Lane, as records show to date.”
Two paintings in New York City attributed to Fitz Hugh Lane bear his full, signed name of Fitz Henry Lane. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has one and the Museum of the City of New York has the other.
“It suddenly made sense because it confirmed the signature of a painting that I could never explain, a confirmation of what seemed a strange and barren detail,” said Wilmerding. “This news was exciting because with all of these unknowns, we finally turned up one concrete new piece of information.”
Dunlap noted that even in modern times with updated record keeping, “you wouldn’t find it [the true name] under any other reference” so when the name Fitz Henry Lane appeared on a painting or two, it failed to set off any alarms.
“The other funny thing is many people would correct Fitz Henry to make it Fitz Hugh,” said Dunlap. “We saw articles originally written with Fitz Henry and transcribed in later books and didactics in museums corrected to Fitz Hugh.”
In her introduction to Wilmerding’s newly reprinted 1971 book (now titled Fitz Henry Lane) on the painter, Cape Ann Historical Museum curator Judith McCulloch wrote, “The discovery poses a dilemma for the art world which will not be settled quickly or easily.”