19th Century Landscape and Marine Artist
Image: Taking in the Sails
By Mary Blood Mellen
In recent years, Mary Blood Mellen has emerged as one of the most talented women artists in the years immediately preceding the Civil War. She was an American landscape and marine artist who collaborated with her mentor, American Luminist master Fitz Henry Lane. Mellen was one of the few women painters associated with the Hudson River School – a group of artists working in nineteenth-century New England. She is known for her renderings of nostalgic landscapes and seascapes in the Gloucester, Massachusetts area.
While information about her life is always somewhat sketchy, Mary Blood Mellen was likely born in 1817 in Sterling, Massachusetts, where she attended a girl’s academy and studied painting. Mary showed an early interest and aptitude in art and learned to paint with watercolors at boarding school. In 1840, she married the Reverend Charles Mellen, and the couple lived in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Mellen was a Universalist minister at several Massachusetts churches during his career.
By the end of the 1840s, Mary Mellen was working with famed marine artist Fitz Henry Lane. Lane was both her teacher and mentor and his influence is obvious in Mellen’s work. Reverend Mellen was proud of his wife’s artistic talents and encouraged her to continue with her work. Like Lane and other artists associated with the Hudson River School, Mellen painted in the Luminist Style that was popular in mid-nineteenth-century America.
An American style of landscape painting between the 1850s and 1870s, Luminism is characterized by the effects of light in landscapes and concealing all brushstrokes. This style of art usually emphasizes calm water and a hazy sky. Objects are captured like a moment frozen in time, the effect of which is a sense of peace. In addition to a fondness for sunsets, Luminist artists also favored foggy coastal scenes.
Luminism and Impressionism share an emphasis on light, but the styles are very different. Luminism is characterized by attention to detail and concealing brushstrokes beneath a smooth, slick finish; Impressionism exhibits a lack of detail and an emphasis on brushstrokes. Luminism is an American painting style that came before Impressionism, a French movement. Luminism was characteristic of the works of a group of independent American painters who were directly influenced by the Hudson River School.
Women Artists of the Hudson River School
The Hudson River School was not an educational institution; it was a mid-19th-century American art movement. It was practiced by a group of independent American landscape painters whose works depict the Hudson River Valley, as well as three mountain ranges: the Catskills, the Adirondacks, and the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Hudson River School paintings are characterized by their realistic and detailed portrayal of nature, often combining agricultural scenes and the wilderness, which was disappearing from the Hudson Valley just as it was coming to be appreciated.
Female painters who took part in this art movement were not the typical nineteenth-century woman. Instead of complaining about the limitations society placed upon them, these women explored vast stretches of virtually unknown landscapes. Despite their long skirts, they waded through streams and climbed trees to get a better view of the American wilderness that so fascinated them. They quickly sketched what they observed and made notes to help them later recall the glorious views they had witnessed – this wild country did not offer nice level places to set up an easel.
Hudson River School artist Susie Barstow was an avid mountain climber; Eliza Pratt Greatorex was the first woman elected to the National Academy of Design. Julie Hart Beers led sketching expeditions in the Hudson Valley; Harriet Cany Peale studied with well-known artist Rembrandt Peale, whom she later married. Other women artists like Laura Woodward (1834–1926), Evelina Mount (1837–1920), Jane Stuart (1812–1888), Josephine Chamberlin Ellis (1842–1912), and Sarah Cole (1805–1857) were enamored of the beauty of the natural world they experienced firsthand. Mary Blood Mellen was also greatly influenced by this art movement.
Image: Stage Rocks and Western Shore of Gloucester Outer Harbor
Painted by Fitz Henry Lane in 1857
Fitz Henry Lane
Fitz Henry Lane was America’s best-known Luminist painter for his marine and landscape scenes suffused with light and color during the period from 1850 through 1865. Lane, a native of Gloucester, Massachusetts, learned from childhood the visual imagery of this seaside town whose livelihood in many ways depended upon the sea. As a young man, Lane moved to Boston where he pursued his artistic profession from 1832 to the late 1840s. He first worked as an apprentice creating detailed lithographs of harbor scenes and other topics. He returned to Gloucester in 1848, where he completed the majority of his work, Lane continued to paint in Boston and along the coasts of Massachusetts and Maine.
Like many women artists of her generation, Mary Mellen was a copyist, which means she copied Lane’s works as part of her education and to gain experience, which was common practice. Using his pencil drawings and paintings, she created her interpretation of his original subject. Naturally these paintings were similar to Lane’s, but Mellen used her own color palette and level of detail.
Lane and Mellen
As an aspiring artist, Mary Blood Mellen was attracted to Fitz Henry Lane’s work and was working in his Gloucester studio by 1848, where she began her apprenticeship by making copies of Lane’s work. Mellen and Lane developed a close relationship and often worked on the same canvas, as well as side by side on their respective paintings. Mellen also painted original works and often produced several versions of the same scene.
Mellen was said to have equaled Lane’s style so that even he could not tell which was his own painting. This excerpt appears in the book, Fitz H. Lane: An Artist’s Voyage through Nineteenth-Century America (2006) by James A Craig:
Mrs. Mellen is so faithful in the copies of her master that even an expert might take them for originals. Indeed, an anecdote is related of her, which will exemplify her power in this direction. She had just completed a copy of one of Mr. Lane’s pictures when he called at her residence to see it. The copy and the original were brought down from the studio together and the master, much to the amusement of those present, was unable to tell which was his own, and which was the pupil’s.
Mary Blood Mellen was one of the few female artists to specialize in maritime subjects. She must have learned to appreciate Lane’s seascapes and harbor scenes while copying his works. One of Mellen’s paintings portrays ships in the harbor as well as a New England countryside with farm animals, entitled Field Beach (1850s). This piece reflects Lane’s influence in its grace, the upright position of the vessels, and the smooth intersection of water and land. However, the strong use of yellow in the horizon illustrates one of the differences between Lane and Mellen; she used this pigment often in painting sunsets in her work.
When Fitz Henry Lane died in 1865, the Mellens were living in Taunton, Massachusetts, where Charles Mellen was the pastor of the Universalist church. Mary Blood Mellen did not begin creating her own compositions until after Fitz Henry Lane’s death. Moonlight, Gloucester Harbor is one of her originals, painted in the 1870s.
Image: Moonlight, Gloucester Harbor
By Mary Blood Mellen
Art historians once believed that Mary Mellen was only a student of Fitz Henry Lane; but in recent years, scholars have discovered that the relationship between Lane and Mellen was more than that of master artist and student. Although Mellen’s style is clearly similar to Lane’s, it is now believed that their relationship was more of a collaboration. A very strong friendship also developed between the two, during the fifteen years, or more, they worked together. More works have been discovered, some unsigned, and attributed to Mellen and/or Lane.
While she followed Lane’s original Luminist style, Mary Blood Mellen became a marine master in her own right, one of very few women to paint such scenes in the nineteenth century.