This piece first appeared in Connections, PEM’s member magazine, and is part of a series where our curators are asked to tell about a piece in the collection that intrigues them.
Like the American painter Fitz Henry Lane, Paula Bradstreet Richter grew up in the waterfront city of Gloucester. Her first job out of college was at the Cape Ann Museum, which houses the largest collection of Lane paintings in the world.
The PEM curator of exhibitions and research offers these tidbits while standing in front of Twilight on the Kennebec, on view in the first-floor Putnam Gallery. In many ways, her affection for the painting, and the painter, is intertwined with her own sense of place and history. “I have always really loved that scene,” she says. “For me, it captures the natural beauty of the New England coast and waterways.
The 1849 painting captures a tranquil moment on the Maine river and the glowing red sky experienced just after sunset. A lumber schooner has been hauled up on shore, perhaps abandoned, near a wooden raft typical of the type used by the logging industry. In the distance, a coastal steamship, a vessel of the industrial age, powers through choppy waves.
“I am very drawn to these powerful moments at the end of the day that capture a moment of reflection, of taking stock of what has happened,” says Richter. “Even though this is a mid-19th-century painting, that moment still recurs in some respects. It’s this universal experience that appeals to me.”
Originally trained as a lithographer at a Boston firm, Lane is known for his meticulous attention to detail. “When you get up close to these paintings, you can appreciate his powers of observation, which came from that early training,” says Richter. “Here we see it in the two tiny figures standing on a rock watching the sun descend below the horizon.”
Whenever Richter travels to museums across the U.S., she frequently comes across a painting by Lane alongside the likes of Frederic Edwin Church and Albert Bierstadt.
“I still think of him in a local way, but Lane is quite prominent in the American art realm. So I appreciate his national as well as regional significance,” says Richter.“It is like discovering an acquaintance in an unexpected place.”