Fitz Henry Lane was born in 1804 in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where his father worked as a sail maker. For nearly his entire career, Lane painted the coast of his native New England with his earliest works depicting Gloucester Harbor and its ships. In 1832 he settled in Boston, where he later established a reputation as the foremost professional marine painter in America. In 1848, Lane returned permanently to Gloucester, and soon embarked on a series of luminous marine paintings that still rank today as some of the most important contributions to American painting in the nineteenth century.
Rafe's Chasm is located between Gloucester and Magnolia Harbors on the north shore of Boston. It is famous to this day for the dramatic surf that has pounded its rocks for centuries. Painted in 1853, Rafe's Chasm, Gloucester, Massachusetts captures this spectacular site and is a bold departure from Lane's previous works; paintings that were primarily characterized by pristine harbor views and thoughtfully composed ship portraits. These elaborate studies of aerial perspective from the early 1850s underlie the formal aesthetics of his grand harbor scenes that culminated in masterful renderings characteristic of Luminism. "These evocative images, so eloquent in their prophetic silence, depict a moment in time as if frozen, and evoke a mood of transcendental silence that is an important reflection of the American imagination at mid-century." (E.A. Powell, III, "The Boston Harbor Pictures," Paintings by Fitz Hugh Lane, exhibition catalogue, Washington, D.C., 1988, p. 47)
Rafe's Chasm, Gloucester, Massachusetts shows the artist's fascination with exploring a more dramatic approach to his marine subjects. As he shifts to working with heavier applications of paint, the work also demonstrates Lane's continual interest with light. Executed after Lane had developed his full Luminist style, in Rafe's Chasm, Gloucester, Massachusetts the artist expertly depicts the sun breaking through the clouds and bathing the rocks and crashing water with highlights of color, affirming Lane as a pivotal painter of coastal light.
In 1853, Lane was at a point in his career when he refined his skills in defining pictorial space and tangible volumes. The artist's progress is certainly evident in this painting as the recession of space to the distant horizon is completely convincing. The artist has ordered the composition with clear divisions of space reaching back to the horizon and beyond. Tactile rocks create the foreground, the turbulent ocean composes the middle ground and the sailboats on the horizon make up the background. These variously graduated forms extend the space into the distance, where Lane's signature Luminist sky begins. The overall composition evokes a feeling of the transcendence of God to Nature to Man and suggests equilibrium between shore and ocean, as well as atmosphere and light.
In the present work, Lane demonstrates his unparalleled proficiency by rendering a scene with stunningly accurate detail. Lane has meticulously and sharply rendered the sailboats in the distance as well as the crashing waves and the rocks of the shore. In a review from 1854, critic and artist Clarence Chatham Cook wrote: "His pictures delighted sailors by their perfect truth. Lane knows the name and place of every rope on a vessel; he knows the construction, the anatomy, the expression--and for a seaman every thing that sails has expression and individuality--he knows how she will stand under this rig, before this wind; how she looks stern foremost, bow foremost, to windward, to leeward, in all changes and guises..." (New York City Independent, September 7, 1854, as quoted in W.H. Gerdts, "'The Sea is His Home': Clarence Cook Visits Fitz Hugh Lane," American Art Journal, vol. 17, no. 3, Summer 1985, pp. 48-9)
John Wilmerding comments that Lane's works from the 1850s were characterized by "a new severity and serenity, more open and poetic compositions." (Paintings by Fitz Hugh Lane, New York, 1988, p. 14) The choice of a more dynamic setting in Rafe's Chasm, Gloucester, Massachusetts creates a heightened drama not previously found in Lane's paintings, but despite the dramatic subject, this work still exudes an overriding order.