Words and Wordlessness in Fitz Henry Lane’s Gloucester

Speaker: Dr Nicholas Robbins

In the chapter on “Language” in Nature (1836)—in his sustained pursuit of a natural, universal language—Ralph Waldo Emerson identified what he called the “radical correspondence between visible things and human thoughts.” For Emerson this signalled the inherent presence of spirit and of mind in matter. Yet this correspondence between vision and cognition, pictures and language, was in practice often frustratingly “oblique.” This lecture turns to the painter Fitz Henry Lane, whose markedly mute paintings have often been ventriloquized through the language of Emerson’s essays. Through Lane’s work, it will explore the peculiar intimacy between art and literature that has characterized scholarship on nineteenth-century U.S. painting and the forms of translation this has entailed. This lecture explores an expanded field of language, beyond Emerson’s prose, with which Lane’s art resonates, including include lyrical ballads, newspaper advertisements, and geological texts. In considering the possibilities and the limitations of attempts to match word and image, it will also explore the qualities of Lane’s paintings, and the historical world they were part of, that evaded such correspondence with language.

Nicholas Robbins is a lecturer in History of Art at University College London, where his work focuses on the ecological and scientific significance of art in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Atlantic world. His research has been published in The Art Bulletin, Grey Room, and Oxford Art Journal.

Organised by Professor David Peters Corbett (The Courtauld) and Dr Caroline Levitt (The Courtauld). 

Supported by the Centre for American Art and the Word and Image Cluster. 

This event has passed.

4 May 2023

Thursday 4th May, 2023, 5.30pm - 6.30pm

Free, booking essential

Research Forum Seminar Room, Vernon Square campus

This event will now take place in person at our Vernon Square campus. Booking will close 30 minutes before the event start time.


Painting showing a calm cove with a sailing boat on the left hand side. In the distance is a rocky island and there are large white clouds in the sky.
Fitz Henry Lane, The Western Shore with Norman’s Woe , 1862. Oil on canvas, 22 1/8 x 36 1/4 in. (56.2 x 92.1 cm). Cape Ann Museum, Gloucester.
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