Fitz Henry Lane used camera lucida?
Among the new research on Fitz Henry Lane that has appeared in the past few years is a report from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts that the 19th century Gloucester marine painter may have used a lens known as a camera lucida to sketch a Gloucester scene and then transfer that sketch to his canvas when creating his 1862 oil painting “View of Coffin’s Beach” (above). This could explain some of the precision of both his drawings and paintings.
“We noticed there seemed to be this wavering back and forth between drawings that seemed to be freehand and those that seemed to be mechanical,” says Karen Quinn, an assistant curator of paintings at the MFA, who was assisted in the study by MFA conservators Jean Woodward and Sanda Kelberlau.
By “mechanical,” Quinn means that Lane's drawing has the quality of something traced with the aid of some sort of helping device. The camera lucida is a prism that attaches to a table or board with a metal arm. Looking through the lens the scene seems to be transposed upon the paper or canvas on your table. The artist then can “trace” the scene.
The MFA team tracked down Lane’s sketch of the scene in the collection of Gloucester’s Cape Ann Historical Museum and then headed out to the site of Lane’s painting. On the back of the painting, which is in the MFA’s collection, is a notation: “View of Coffin's beach, from the rocks at/the Loaf, after a sketch taken, August, 1862./by Fitz H. Lane.”
“We actually did drawings with a camera lucida from the same site that Lane did his drawings from … and then we did measurements against the Lane drawing. And they actually lined up very closely,” Quinn tells me. They found the sketches were nearly the same width and the outlines of the shore opposite matched.
She says Lane seems to have used the camera lucida to sketch in the contours and placement of the shoreline and rock formations, then he drew in details and shading freehand.
Other clues include an infrared reflectography scan of Lane’s canvas, which revealed underdrawing that matches very closely to Lane’s pencil sketch, but about twice as large. They also found matching vertical marks on the drawing and painting that Lane may have used to help line up the drawing as he transferred it part by part to the canvas.
“We think he did use a camera lucida,” Quinn says. “It’s something that’s easily portable. It’s a drawing aide. It doesn’t create the final work of art. It’s like Thomas Eakins using photography” as a reference for his works.
They announced their findings in an article in the July 2006 issue of The Magazine Antiques:
Although the relationship between the underdrawing and the finished painting is close, Lane made subtle but significant changes. He smoothed over details such as the tops of the trees in the background, and he nearly tripled the expanse of the sky, accentuating the horizontal format and emphasizing the expansiveness of the composition and the sense of emptiness in the finished oil.They haven’t discerned how many years Lane may have used the camera lucida, or when he began.
The camera lucida captures only stationary elements. Neither the original sketch nor the transferred underdrawing include any of the transitory elements in the final work: the sailboat, waves, clouds, or light and its effect on color. Lane painted these directly after laying in the ocean and sky. For the dawn light, he applied thin layers of paint and blended them on the canvas to create the imperceptible transitions from salmon pink to blue in the glowing color of the early morning sky. Along with the careful refinement of the composition, it is Lane's exploration of light and color that transforms his topographical study into a work of art.
Their findings fit into the growing study by folks like Oxford historian Martin Kemp, and popularized by California painter David Hockney, of whether artists used optical aides to make their work – perhaps as early as the Renaissance.
Quinn says they don’t know how common the use of lenses was among 19th century American painters, though there’s evidence suggesting that Philadelphia’s Titian Ramsay Peale (son of Charles Willson Peale) and Massachusetts painter Alvan Clark (who later developed optical devices) perhaps did.
“It certainly gives us a sense of their process as well,” Quinn says. “And in many cases some of them were interested in new scientific aides that could be used,” including new pigments and optics.