Bright Lights, Safe Harbors,

Painted Images of American Lighthouses

(Copyright 2001 by R.Alexander Boyle)

Thomas Birch, Cape Henlopen Beacon, Delaware,1832

Alfred Thompson Bricher, Saddleback Light, Maine

James Edward Buttersworth, Pilot Vessel off Sandy Hook Lighthouse

Mauritz DeHaas, Isles of Shoals Lighthouse, out buildings destroyed in 1992

Clement Drew, Mt. Desert Rock Lighthouse, Maine

Lemuel Eldred, Portland Light, ME

C.H. Gifford, Clark Light, New Bedford, MA, demolished

Sanford Robinson Gifford, Montauk Lighthouse, 1877

John William Hill, Gay Head Lighthouse, 1858

Edward Hopper, Lighthouse Hill, Cape Elizabeth, 1927

F. H. Lane, Camden from the Graves

Arthur Laws, Nauset Light, Eastham, MA

Edward Moran, Lighthouse along the Coast

William Trost Richards, Sankaty Head Lighthouse, Nantucket, July 6, 1865, photo: Cleveland Museum of Art

C.D. Ryan, Southwest Light, Block Island, RI

Robert Salmon, Boston Light, 1829

Robert Salmon, Moonlight along the Coast

Francis Silva, Robbins Reef Lighthouse, NY Harbor

Francis Silva, Thatcher Island Lighthouse, Cape Ann, MA, 1871

Francis Silva, Hudson River Scene with Esopus Meadows Lighthouse. 1876, Brooklyn Museum

James L. Sitton, Hillsboro Inlet Lighthouse, Florida

Laura Woodward, Anastasia Light, St. Augustine, Florida

Wickford Light, RI, demolished

Andrew Wyeth, Marshall Point Light, 1946

Beacons of hope and safe passage to generations of homeward-bound American mariners, some of the older lighthouses in the northeast have been on duty for over 200 years.  Located on some of the remotest cliffs and shoals that a new nation had to offer, the siting of America’s landmark lighthouses was entirely driven by need. Later, with the passage of time and a growing familiarity with the rhythm of the seasonal whims and moods of the local environment, these coastal beacons, while often desolate and severe, took on a unique beauty of their own. This vision was shared by some of America’s greatest artists, whose images of these historic structures are often counted as their finest works. Fitz Hugh Lane and Edward Hopper immediately come to mind. Each produced stark and powerful images, uniquely American in style and subject. Additionally many other artists contributed to this, until now, ignored sector of marine painting.

As attention is focused on these images, the more one realizes what a precarious existence these buildings have endured. Situated on the very edge of the ocean’s fury, many historic lighthouses fell victim to shifting sands, coastal erosion and the pure power of sea-born storms. Casualties of Mother Nature include:[1] the first two lights of Cape May, NJ (1823, 1847); two different lights at Cape Henlopen, DE (1765-1926, 1824-1864); numerous lights at Brandt Point, Nantucket, MA, (1746); Great Point, Nantucket, MA (1818-1984); Billingsgate, Cape Cod, MA (1852-1915); and the Minots Ledge, MA (1849-1851). Others remain threatened, all the while personifying the American maritime legacy. The first and foremost mission of many historical societies of the Northeast is the preservation of the local light. Fortunately they seem to be holding their own if the recent moves of the lighthouses of Cape Hatteras, NC, South East Light, RI and Highland Light, MA, are any example.

The very first lighthouse built in America was Boston Light, in 1716, on what is now called Brewster Island, located along King’s Roads (renamed Presidential Roads after the Revolution) at the entrance to Boston Harbor. During the Revolution it was tormented by the Colonists, then British, the purpose, to deny the other the use of a vital beacon. Upon the end of the war in 1783, Massachusetts Governor John Hancock (he of signature fame, and, prior to that, a smuggler of legendary renown), authorized construction of a 75-foot tower “to be nearly the same dimensions of the former Lighthouse. Later in 1859 the Lighthouse board added 14 feet making the light 89 feet high. This alteration is perhaps why the light afterwards developed cracks, necessitating the installation of metal hoops on the outside as a girdle to hold the structure together. Boston Light remains the last manned light in the United States.

 The image here by Robert Salmon, is important for a couple of reasons: it shows the Light before its 1859 alteration, and, according to Salmon’s own record book this 1829 painting was the very first work he completed in his new country, as noted in the appendix of John Wilmerding’s book, Robert Salmon Painter of Ship and Shore (Salem, 1969). Salmon’s mastery of nautical draughtmanship and atmospheric light reveals how he synthesized the influence of Canaletto's atmosphere with the school of English marine painting. Before the Statue of Liberty, it was not unusual for immigrants to make the first American light they saw on the arrival as totems of their affection for their new country.

The oldest surviving lighthouse in the country is Sandy Hook Light. An octagonal tower (possible Masonic influence, eight being their symbol of equality) of 103 feet high, it was completed in 1764 by Isaac Conroe, and underwritten by New York City merchants. For years it was called New York Light by mariners. After the Revolution it was the subject of a not surprisingly bitter custody battle between the eternally squabbling states of New York and New Jersey. New York paid for operating the light, but New Jersey owned the land. The Federal Government’s decision was to place the light under the Treasury Department and eventually the Lighthouse Board. The Lighthouse Board in turn would eventually be merged into the United States Coast Guard in the late 1930’s.

When first built, Sandy Hook Light was 500 feet from the tip of the hook, and today, still in operation, it is now more than a mile and a half south of the present tip of the hook.[2] The painting here by James Edward Buttersworth shows a yacht race just offshore of the bar to New York Harbor. Historic background for this sport came from the competition for pilot boat fees, which was so intense, that the need for fast schooners to outrace the competition gave rise to the America’s Cup class of racing yachts. The New York pilots were thought by many to be the finest in the world as they guided larger and larger vessels into the busiest harbor of North America. Buttersworth always had an appreciation for good seamanship as his America’s Cup images stand as tribute to yachting’s greatest event. The Americas Cup was held in lower New York Harbor from 1870 to 1920, with the Sandy Hook Light the most loyal of spectators, before being toted off to Newport, RI in 1930.

Another early octagonal tower built in the New York area was Montauk Light at the eastern point of Long Island. Built at the insistence of George Washington, it was completed in 1797 by John McComb, a New York bricklayer who also built the lighthouse at Cape Henry, Virginia, in 1791. [3]  McComb’s bid was $22,300, a large sum at the time, but well worth it as the light is still in operation, despite the threat of cliff erosion. Sanford Robinson Gifford’s image of Montauk Light dates from around 1877. A Hudson River School artist, Gifford evolved into one of the pioneering Luminists, masters of light and serene atmosphere who focused on marine and coastal subjects, and  are at their peak in the post Civil War era. Gifford was a veteran of the war, and after the trauma of this nation’s bloodiest conflict, sought tranquility in contemplating nature and fishing. A year or two beforehand Gifford had listed his profession as, “Fisherman.”[4]  Supposedly one of his favorite pursuits in life was that of the striped bass,[5] a species of fish seasonally abundant off Montauk Point, then and now.


Darkness on the Coast

Less than twenty miles to the east of Montauk Light is Block Island, and despite the towering cliffs that loom over its south coast no light was built until the Federal Government erected South East Light in the 1875. In contrast Gay Head Light on Martha’s Vineyard (image here by John William Hill) was first built in 1799, and rebuilt in 1856. Today Block Island is an idyllic summer getaway, but in earlier days some of its residents had a sinister reputation. Sea captains particularly those out of neighboring Stonington, CT, said that Block Island was led by “wreckers,” who made a living out of raising false lights to lure unsuspecting mariners onto shoals. They would then salvage the goods that washed ashore. The legendary writer New Yorker writer, Joseph Mitchell loved stories about Block Island. In the “Dragger Captain” chapter of his Bottom of the Harbor, Mitchell transcribed a Stonington sailor’s tale of a gang of wreckers:[6]

Old Chrissy was an old rascal of a woman that was head of a gang of wreckers. They lured in ships with false lights, and they killed the sailors and passengers, so they wouldn’t be any tales told. Old Chrissy always took in charge of a killing. She had a big club and she’d hist her skirt and wade out into the surf and clout people on the head as they swam or floated in. She called a wreck a wrack, the way Block Islanders do. That’s the way she pronounced it. One night she and her gang lured a ship onto the reef, and the sailors were floating in, and old Chrissy was out there clouting them on their heads. One poor fellow floated up, and it was one of Chrissy’s sons, who’d left the island and gone to the mainland to be a sailor. He looked up at Chrissy and said, “Hello Ma.” Old Chrissy didn’t hesitate a moment. She lifted her club and clouted him on the head. “A son’s a son,” she said, “but a wrack is a wrack”

Given their reputation for wreckers the construction of South East Light in 1875 was long overdue. Especially when compared to the rest of New England. The image here, dated 1929, it is by an artist named C.D.Ryan, and it accurately reflects both the steepness of Mohegan Bluffs, and the closeness of the charming Victorian structure to the edge of the cliff. In 1993 the light was towed back from the abyss in a preservation effort that made national news.


Lost Lights and the Maine Coast


An artist of an earlier generation, Thomas Birch (1779-1851), whose painting of a ship undergoing the careening process to scrape barnacles from the hull, has an unidentified lighthouse in the distance. Dated 1832, the location remains subject to debate, as no such light stills exists. Only after researching Birch’s exhibition records at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts does a possibility surface. Twice, in 1830 and 1838, Birch exhibited works with the title of “Cape Henlopen.” Cape Henlopen is a sandy peninsula on the Delaware side of the mouth of the Delaware River, with which the Philadelphia native was familiar. Just one problem: there were two lights there, Cape Henlopen Light (1765-1926) and Cape Henlopen Beacon (1824-1864). An octagonal tower located on top of a sand dune, the light collapsed in spectacular fashion in 1926 when the dune eroded. Cape Henlopen Beacon, on the other hand, was a 45-foot high conical tower located three-quarters of a mile to the north, closer to the shipping lanes. Alas, it was too close to the water, and currents eventually undermined it by 1865.

Other lights Birch painted illustrated in John Wilmerding’s pioneering book, A History of American Marine Painting (Peabody Museum, Salem, MA, 1968). The book is mandatory for anyone interested in the subject. A Birch in plate 74 shows a light on a rocky headland, most likely Portland Head Light, also authorized by George Washington, and built in 1790. One of the biggest tourist attractions in the state of Maine, the light has been raised, lowered and raised again. The image of Portland Light here is by Lemuel Eldred. Maine’s rugged coastline, colorful maritime legacy, and extensive collection of 19th century lighthouses made it the Mecca for lighthouse enthusiasts. Another 1830’s image by Birch is illustrated on plate 77 of Wilmerding’s book. Titled, “Minots Ledge,” (col. Historical Society of Pennsylvania) it is probably Whaleback Light (1831, 1872) or Saddleback Ledge Light (1839), both in Maine. The original Minot’s Ledge was a skinny screw-pile lighthouse of metal construction built twenty years later in 1850, and was swept into the sea in spectacular fashion during a ferocious Nor’easter of March 1851.[7] A moored lightship served as substitute from 1851 to November 1860. Finally on November 15, 1860, the stone lighthouse tower at Minot’s Ledge was lit nine years after Birch’s death in 1851.[8]

Similar in remote location and construction to Saddleback Light and Whaleback Light is that of Mt. Desert Rock. Located on a barren rock 20 miles out to sea from Mt. Desert Island, the first lighthouse on the site was erected in 1830. Like all other lights of the that period, it was constructed under the tight-fisted supervision of Stephen Pleasanton, the Fifth Auditor of the Treasury from 1820 through 1852, who made sure all lighthouses came in at or under budget. However, his dollar squeezing propensities led to many shortcuts resulting in faulty construction. True to form, the first Mt. Desert Rock Lighthouse had to be replaced by 1847. The image here by Clement Drew (1806-1889) dates from 1878. Although often naïve in execution, Drew’s late works are frequently inscribed with a title, exact location and date, which give then historic validity. This painting shows the turbulent environment with which the lighthouse keepers had to contend. The ocean frequently swept away out buildings and any top soil that keepers received as a present from mainland friends.[9]  Today the light is leased to the College of the Atlantic as a whale-watching station.

Similar in environment to Mount Desert Rock Light is the Isle of Shoals Light, located well offshore on White Island on the border of Maine and New Hampshire. The pleasant nocturnal image by Mauritz DeHaas shows the light in better days before the legendary gales of 1991 and 1992 swept away all of the outbuildings, including the lighthouse walk way, over forty feet above ocean’s wrath.

Closer to the mainland is Bear Island Light. Bear Island is one of the so-called Cranberries that cover the entrance to Mt. Desert’s Northeast Harbor. The image here is by Fitz Henry Lane (col. Cape Ann Historical Museum, Gloucester MA). Executed in 1855, the painting conveys the welcome place felt by mariners, safely anchored at sunset.  The Bear Island Light seen here is the second of three. The first, built during Pleasanton’s reign in 1839 had to be replaced in 1852 with a brick tower. In 1889 the light was replaced with a 31-foot brick tower, still there today, and, in the late 1980’s it became a part of Arcadia National Park. 

The twin lights of Cape Elizabeth, ME, bring to a climax all Maine lighthouse images. Best known from the work of Edward Hopper (1882-1967) they are a pair of cast iron lights, gingerbread Victorian in style. Their unique rectangular foundations make them immediately recognizable. Built in 1874, they replaced an earlier pair of rubblestone towers (first constructed in 1827 for only $4,750, a figure that surely pleased Pleasanton.) When Hopper painted Cape Elizabeth Light in 1927, the west tower had been discontinued, making the east tower the only active light. In this series, working out of doors on location, he captured the stark white forms of the architecture set in dramatic contrast to the rich blue sky of the late afternoon.[10] Hopper’s images from this series some of the finest American paintings ever done. In 1970 a similar image belonging to the Metropolitan Museum of Art was reproduced on a US Postage stamp in commemoration of Maine’s 150th anniversary of statehood. There is something unique about their post World War One timing, which implies potential hidden symbolism. Hopper studied in France and could appreciate the American rescue effort of World War One. A thought thrown out here is, does Hopper’s fascination with lighthouses, particularly at sunrise, like the Met example, reflect an image meant to symbolize the Yankee perspective on the world? In Hopper’s eyes, was America meant to be the beacon of hope and vigilance? Is this a commentary on our failure to join the League of Nations? A fanciful stretch perhaps, but possibly born out by the subsequent events of World War Two. His thoughts were so infectious that a friend, and pupil, Sandor Bernath (1891-?) also painted one of the Cape Elizabeth Lights, and this view, presumably from the same time period, emphasizes the light itself with the islands of Casco Bay in the background.

Beginning in the late 1870’s and on into the early 20th century,  a series of iron caisson lighthouses were built around the country in such numbers that it is often difficult to tell them apart. This was the case several years ago when the author bought a harbor scene at sunset painting by Francis Silva (1836-1886), a follower of Sanford Gifford. Appearing in the background is what we now call a “Coffee Pot” or a “Spark Plug” lighthouse. Many thought this was the Orient Point Lighthouse that marks a treacherous rip in Long Island Sound. However that lighthouse was built in 1899, thirteen years after Silva’s death. Research disclosed Silva lived on the Jersey shore, and often commuted by ferry to Manhattan. Along the way is the venerable “Coffee Pot Light” of Robbin's Reef, located in a shallow area of Upper New York Harbor, a half mile from Staten Island. Built in 1883, it is a rare “Coffee Pot” Light to have a traditional stone base. Later a sustaining rock wall called “rip-rap” became the inexpensive and preferred way of protecting iron caisson lighthouses. The lighthouses were to be anchored to reef via a vacuum suction concrete foundation pioneered in the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge.

The last lighthouse to be covered here began in 1880 as the North Beacon of Sandy Hook. Early in World War One it was discovered to be in the line of fire of the batteries of Fort Hancock, and in 1921 the light was moved to Fort Washington on Upper Manhattan. However the completion of the massive George Washington Bridge in 1931 rendered, “the Little Red Lighthouse” obsolete. Scheduled for demolition by the Coast Guard, it was saved by the outcries raised by thousands of school children, who had read Hildergard Swift book, The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge. Today the light belongs to the New York City Parks Department. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, it was designated a New York City landmark in 1991. The painting by Xavier Barile shows the light before the arrival of its giant neighbor. Barile was a student of the Ashcan School, and like many of that genre took particular delight in painting the underdogs of the underclass.

The history of the Little Red Lighthouse exemplifies what many of these historic structures have had to endure. Facing a struggle to survive, it did so twice in memorable fashion, and in doing so revealed what a hold these lighthouses have on the young and the old. In the day of Global Position System Satellites, the lights are not really needed, but their presence is reassuring, reminding one and all, great and small, that even on the darkest of nights they are not alone, that somebody, somewhere, cares.


[1] Tim Harrison and Ray Jones, Lost Lighthouses, Stories and Images of America’s Vanished Lighthouses, published by the Globe Pequot Press, Guilford, CT 2000, page 167.

[2] Jim Crowley, Lighthouses of New York, Greater NY Harbor, Hudson River & Long Island, Hope Farm Press, Saugerties, NY 2000, page 58.

[3] Harlan Hamilton, Lights and Legends, a Historical Guide to Lighthouses of Long Island Sound, Fishers Island Sound and Block Island Sound, Stamford, CT, 1987, page 159

[4] Ila Weiss, Poetic Landscape, The Art and Experience of Sanford R. Gifford, Cranbury, NJ, 1987, page 149.

[5] Ibid, page 148.

[6] Joseph Mitchell, The Bottom of the Harbor, republished in 1994 by Random House, NY, page 136.

[7] Frederic L. Thompson, The Lightships of Cape Cod, 1996, Portland ME, pages 95-99. Illustrated  p.96.

[8] Ibid, p. 99.

[9] Courtney Thompson, Maine Lighthouses, A Pictorial Guide, Catnap Publications, Mt. Desert, ME, 1998, pages 36 and 37.

[10] Gail Levin, Edward Hopper, The Art And The Artist, Whitney Museum, NY 1980, page 43.


Sandy Hook Light, built in 1765 by Isaac Conroe

Sea Girt Lighthouse

Barnegat Light, 2007

Montauk Light, 2003

Anastasia Lighthouse, Florida 2007

Key West, FL, supposedly Ernest Hemingway bought the house across the street so he could always stumble home after a night's out.

South East Light, Block Island

Nauset Light, Eastham, once a part of a pair in nearby Chatham

The original Three Sister of Eastham, MA, NPS site

Highlands Lighthouse, Truro, MA

Cape Elizabeth Light, Maine, CQ 2001

Portland Head, Lighthouse, with Rams Island Ledge Light in the distance on the right, 2000

The Twin Lights of Thatchers Island, Cape Anne, MA, 2000

Abandoned Brandt Point Lighthouse, Nantucket, MA, 2001

Esopus Meadows Lighthouse on the Hudson River, 2005

Sankaty Head Lighthouse, Nantucket, MA, 2001



Art sites Also by Alexander Boyle:

Guide to where the Hudson River School Painted

Bright Lights, Safe Harbors, Painted Images of American Lighthouses

First Review of Thomas Cole (1801-1848), Nov. 22, 1825

Thomas Cole in the Upper Schoharie watershed of the Catskills

Frederic E. Church (1826-1900)

Master-list of Herman Herzog (1832-1932)

Winslow Homer (1836-1910) and Houghton Farm, Mountainville, NY

John F. Peto (1854-1907), The Studio in Island Heights, NJ

Biography of Eugene Francis Savage (1883-1978)

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) rediscovery   

Abstract Expressionist Joseph Grippi (1924-2003)   

Alvin Loving (1935-2005)

The Outside Art of Nobihoru Yamauchi

E-Mail Alexander questions about these artists or any fine art work in general