A key member of the second-generation Hudson River School and a leading figure in New York art circles during the mid-nineteenth century, John Frederick Kensett is best known for his New England coastal scenes, painted in the restrained yet highly poetic style known today as Luminism. His oeuvre also includes landscapes and figural works which, like his littoral subjects, underscore the fact that, according to one reminiscence, “all his pictures are biographical, for they reveal the fidelity, the tenderness, and the sweet serenity of his nature."
That refined draftsmanship and a penchant for detail were vital components of Kensett’s art is not surprising. Born in Cheshire, Connecticut, he was the son of Thomas Kensett, a noted engraver and publisher who operated a thriving business in New Haven alongside his brother-in-law, Alfred Daggett. (For an overview of Kensett’s life and work, see John Paul Driscoll and John K. Howat, John Frederick Kensett: An American Master [Worcester, Massachusetts: Worcester Art Museum, 1985.) During the late 1820s, after honing his skills in drawing and engraving by working in the family firm, Kensett went to New York, where he served a short-lived apprenticeship with Peter Maverick, another talented engraver. However, following his father’s death in 1829, Kensett returned to New Haven and began working for his uncle. He remained there until 1837, when he relocated to Albany, New York, where he engraved banknote vignettes and related projects for Hall, Packard, and Cushman, until 1840.
Like other artists of his milieu who began their careers as engravers––among them his friend, John W. Casilear––Kensett developed an interest in landscape painting, feeling “in his soul a capacity for color which painting alone could satisfy” (“Obituary. John Frederick Kensett, Artist,” New York Times, 15 Decmber 1872, p. ). In June 1840, accompanied by Casilear, Asher B. Durand and Thomas Rossiter, Kensett traveled to Europe to further his training. After a sojourn in London, where he had the opportunity to see examples of Old Master paintings and contemporary European art at the National Gallery and Dulwich College, he went to Paris, developing his expertise in rendering the figure by attending antique classes at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts and making copies of Old Master paintings in the Louvre. In the wake of his grandmother’s death at Hampton Court in 1843, Kensett returned to England to collect a small but much welcomed inheritance. He remained there for two years, during which time he painted some of his earliest landscapes, including views of the countryside around Windsor Castle. In 1845, he began to make his mark in the art world by exhibiting his work at the Royal Academy of Arts and the British Institution. While abroad, Kensett also sent some of his oils back to New York, where they were acquired and distributed by the American Art-Union (known as the Apollo Association after 1844).
Kensett returned to Paris in June 1845. After spending some time in Germany and Switzerland, he settled in Rome in October, where he fraternized with other members of the city’s American art colony, including the painter Thomas Hicks, with whom he shared a studio, and the author George William Curtis. Kensett also embarked on what has been described as a “long and happy journey ... to Naples and Paestum and Amalfi, Ischia and the Blue Grotto." After additional periods of activity in Rome, Florence, Venice, and other Italian locales, Kensett returned to New York in November 1847. (Kensett would travel to England and the Continent again in 1861 and possibly 1865 and 1867. However, in comparison to his initial trip across the Atlantic, these later excursions are not well documented.) By this point, his style had evolved from the low-keyed colors and heavy paint application of his English period to his signature aesthetic, characterized by a more varied palette, a lighter application of pigment, and a firmer handling of line and form, which he applied to his views of the Catskill and Adirondack Mountains of New York, the Berkshires of Massachusetts, and the Green and White Mountains in Vermont and New Hampshire. Kensett quickly emerged as an important member of the native landscape school, as evidenced by his election as an associate member of the National Academy of Design in 1848 and a full academician in 1849, the year he also acquired membership in the venerable Century Association.
In about 1855––possibly inspired the illustrations he produced for Curtis’s Lotus-Eating: A Summer Book (1852), which documented the author’s summer sojourns in resort locales in Rhode Island and elsewhere––Kensett began painting views of New England coastlines, especially in the vicinity of Newport. Executed with the carefully controlled brushwork associated with Luminism, his work in this genre––with its simplified, pared-down compositions, tranquil mood, and concern for conveying nuances of light and atmosphere––include notable oils such as Beacon Rock, Newport Harbor (1857; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) and Shrewsbury River, New Jersey (1859; The New-York Historcial Society, New York). (For Kensett and Luminism, see Mark W. Sullivan, “John F. Kensett at Newport: The Making of a Luminist Painter,” The Magazine Antiques CXXXVIII [November 1990], pp. 1039–41.) Kensett’s work was avidly collected by prominent New Yorkers of his day, many of whom, such as Robert M. Olyphant, were members of the Century Association. A popular and highly influential figure who sought to better the cause of American art and artists, Kensett was closely involved with committee work at the National Academy, the Artist’s Fund Society, the National Art Commission, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he was both a founding member and a trustee.
Kensett’s success was such that in March 1867 he was able to purchase a parcel of land on Contentment Island, off the coast of Darien, Connecticut, from his good friend Vincent Colyer (1824–1888), a painter who specialized in images of the American West and himself a summer resident of the island. (For this aspect of Kensett’s career, see Janice Simon and Ann Y. Smith, Images of Contentment: John Frederick Kensett and the Connecticut Shore, exhib. cat. [Waterbury, Connecticut: Mattatuck Museum, 2001].) Although Kensett planned to build a home and studio on Contentment, he subsequently stayed with Colyer and his wife, Mary, during his seasonal visits. Sadly, his career was cut short when, after attempting to recover Mary’s body following her drowning in Long Island Sound on October 31, 1872, he contracted pneumonia and died in his New York studio on December 14 from heart failure. (“Death of Mrs. Vincnt Colyer––Drowned While Crossing a Swollen Stream,” New York Times, November 2, 1872, p. 5). Esteemed as an artist and beloved as a man, Kensett’s funeral was attended by the foremost luminaries of the art world, among them Winslow Homer, Daniel Huntington, Eastman Johnson, and J. Alden Weir, as well as his good friends Casilear, Hicks, Olyphant, and Colyer.