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 John Frederick Kensett  (1816 - 1872)

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Lived/Active: New York/Connecticut      Known for: landscape and coastal scene painting, engravings

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John Frederick Kensett
from Auction House Records.
Entrance to Newport Harbor
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following is from The New York Times, July 4, 2001,

The Final Strokes Are Kensett's Best

With Eatons Neck, Long Island, the Luminist landscape painter John Frederick Kensett did not have far to go for subject matter.  In the late 1860's he bought land and built a studio on an island near Darien, Conn., off the shore of Long Island Sound.  And in the summer of 1872, he painted about 40 views, including many of the points along the Sound and the Connecticut shore.  As a group, they are known as the "Last Summer's Work," since he died in December of that year at age 56.

Of them, Eatons Neck is the best known and the most haunting.  It is a  masterly distillation in which the curving shoreline, water and sky are pared  into an almost abstract composition, bathed in the serene, spiritual light  favored by the small band of Hudson River School painters known today as the Luminists.  Still, the painting's dearth of detail, its stark structure and its
unembellished forms pose the question of whether it was really finished.  The question is of particular interest today, because contemporary taste decrees that an uncompleted work gives more insight into the artist's mind and way of working.

Finished or not, there is strength in the emptiness and eloquent silence of Eatons Neck.  Its spare composition and low-key, closely related colors seem to presage the work of 20th-century American painters like Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman.

Kensett had not always made the spiritual quality of light the central theme  of his paintings. Born in Cheshire, Connecticut, in 1816, he was trained in his  father's engraving shop and worked for nearly a decade at that trade before  taking off for a long stay in Europe.  There he traveled in several countries,  sketching and studying the Old Masters.  In Paris, with his fellow American  painter and engraver John W. Casilear, he became a wheel in the expatriate
American artists' colony.

Back home by 1847, he made sketching tours with Casilear and Casilear's painting mentor, the Hudson River stalwart Asher B. Durand, and began  exhibiting at the National Academy.  His approach to landscape then was that  of the picturesque Hudson River School, emphasizing foliage, rock ledges and distant peaks, as in The White Mountains Mt. Washington of 1851.
Influenced by the French painter Claude Lorrain, the painting was the best-known image of that region to be produced in the 1850's. It offers a view of the majestic Mount Washington range in all its grandeur from North Conway, N.H., a distance of 15 miles. With its warm golden light and the inclusion of well-tended houses and sheep in the foreground, the painting helped tame the reputation of an area fostered by earlier painters as a
hostile wilderness.

Although Kensett was admired in the 1850's for idyllic landscapes like this, by the 1860's he had turned to the transcendental style for which he is best regarded today. His compositions became simplified, and his palette more muted, as he cultivated spiritual serenity.

Kensett was a frequent traveler in Europe and the western United States from 1854 to 1870.  He was a trustee of the Century Association in New York, took an important role in organizing an art exhibition during the Civil War to raise money for medical supplies, and became a founding trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was there that the "Last Summer's Work" paintings were donated after Kensett's death.

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Son of an English immigrant engraver, John Kensett lacked enthusiasm for that medium and became one of the most accomplished painters of the second generation of Hudson River School painters.  His reputation is for Luminism, careful depiction of light, weather, and atmosphere as they affect color and texture of natural forms.  He was particularly influenced by the painting of Asher Durand in that he focused on realism and detail rather than the highly dramatic views associated with Thomas Cole.  Going to the western United States in the mid 1850s and the 1860s, he was the first of the Hudson River School painters to explore and paint the West.

Kensett was born and raised in Cheshire, Connecticut, and learned his engraving from his father, Thomas Kensett with whom he worked in New Haven, Connecticut until 1829.  He continued working until 1840 as an engraver of labels, banknotes and maps and was employed part of that time by the American Bank Note Company in New York City.  There he met Thomas Rossiter, John Casilear, and other artists who urged him to pursue painting.  In 1840, he and Rossiter, Asher Durand, and Casilear went to Europe where Kensett stayed for seven years and supported himself by doing engraving but became accomplished in landscape painting.

Having sent canvases of Italian landscapes back to New York, he had a reputation for skillful painting that preceded him.  When he returned to New York City in 1847, he was an "instant success" and very sought after by collectors.  Two of his Italian landscapes had already been purchased by the American Art Union.  By 1849, he was a full member of the National Academy of Design and was generally popular among his peers.   His studio was a gathering place with travelers stopping by to see his canvases and to identify "precise locations in the Catskills or Newport or New England in the oil sketches and drawings that covered his walls." (Zellman 170).  For the women, he was a popular bachelor, "romantic looking with high forehead and sensitive expression." (Samuels 262)

He was also sought after by many organizations. Among his activities were serving on the committee to oversee the decoration of the United States Capitol in Washington DC, and becoming one of the founders of the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

An inveterate traveler, Kensett spent summers on painting excursions away from New York City.  One of these trips was a special painting excursion with fifteen other artists sponsored by the B & O Railroad from Baltimore, Maryland to Wheeling, West Virginia.  Unlike many of the Hudson River painters, Kensett painted coastal views, a subject he began pursuing in the 1850s.  It was a subject that lent itself to his skill in depicting heightened light, color and reflection.  Beginning 1854, he traveled in the West, first going up the Mississippi River and then the Missouri River in 1857, to Colorado with Worthington Whittredge in 1866, and in 1870 back to Colorado with Whittredge and Sanford Gifford.

He died two years later attempting to rescue the drowning wife of fellow artist Vincent Colyer.

Peggy and Harold Samuels, The Illustrated Biographical Encyclopedia of Artists of the American West
John Cuthbert, Early Art and Artists in West Virginia
Michael David Zellman, 300 Years of American Art

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
One of the leading Hudson River School artists, John F. Kensett was originally from Cheshire, Connecticut.  He began his artistic career as a bank note engraver in the roaring financial market of the 1830's.  When the "Wild Cat Era" (named after one of the colorful images engraved on the paper currency of a short-lived bank) ended with the Panic of 1837, Kensett went abroad to study painting in England and France.  For almost ten years he studied the works of the Old Masters along with Asher B. Durand, Thomas Cole's best friend.  Durand's influence was considerable as Kensett's oils are noted for their sense of calm, as opposed to the almost violently dramatic feel of Cole's signature works.

By the time Kensett returned to the United Sates in 1848, he emerged as a full-blown artist, and quickly became one of the pillars of the New York art world.  His style would evolve from the pastoral Hudson River School style into what is known as Luminism, focused on light and atmosphere, instead of painting specific topographical locations.

Kensett more than any of the other landscape painters of that era pursued Luminism, which was a  tangent towards abstraction.  When he died in 1872, after rescuing a neighbors wife from drowning in Long Island Sound, his studio was discovered to contain a series of not quite finished paintings, since titled Last Summer's Work.  These works stunned the New York art world and were regarded as absolute works of genius.   In fact, they were so well regarded that the infant Metropolitan Museum of Art, an institution Kensett and his fellow Union League Club members founded, made a group of 39 landscapes of Lake George, and Long Island Sound the nucleus of its collection. 

Alexander Boyle, who was featured on the television show "America's First River, Bill Moyers on the Hudson.  Boyle worked with the Metropolitan Museum of Art as the Assistant Director of a film, "American Paradise, the World of the Hudson River School" and from 1988 to 2001 was Vice-President of Godel & Co. Fine Art in New York where he bought, sold and wrote about the artists of the Hudson River School, American marine painting, and American Impressionism.

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
His works can be found at the following:
Newport Art Museum:
1. Oil painting, "Newport, R.I." (ca. 1870) (acc.# 989.005.1)

Newport Historical Society:
1. Oil painting [untitled]--landscape, Fort Dumpling, Jamestown (ca. 1855-1865) (acc.# 42.3)

1. Oil painting, landscape, "Genesee River" (1857) (acc.# 13.797)
2. Oil painting, "Lake George, Tongue Mountain" (ca. 1869) (acc.# 20.029)
3. Charcoal/chalk/watercolor, "The Marriage at Cana, after Paolo Veronese" (1857) (acc.# 67.063)
4. Oil painting, board mounted on canvas, "Maples and Birches in October"  (19th c.)(acc.# 1992.026)
5. Oil painting on canvas, "Newport, Rhode Island" (acc.# EL004.80)

Unveiled: a directory and guide to 19th century born artists active in Rhode Island, and where to find their work in publicly accessible Rhode Island collections
by Elinor L. Nacheman

Biography from Hollis Taggart Galleries (Artists, E-O):

John Frederick Kensett (1816-1872)

John F. Kensett is considered one of America’s most important 19th-century landscape painters.   Deeply influenced by the aims and technique of Hudson River School founder Thomas Cole, Kensett is viewed as an heir to Cole in his leadership of the Hudson River traditon.  Kensett was born in Cheshire, Connecticut on March 2, 1816, the son of Thomas Kensett, an engraver, and Elizabeth Daggett.  By age twelve, he was working in his family’s engraving and printing business in New Haven.  At some point, possibly in 1829 when he was thirteen years of age, he went to New York to work for Peter Maverick, then America’s leading engraver.  In Maverick’s shop Kensett met John W. Casilear, five years his senior, who would also become a painter and who would remain Kensett’s lifelong friend. 

Following his father’s death, Kensett returned to New Haven to work for his uncle in the family firm, then named Daggett and Ely.  Kensett was employed engraving business cards, brass door plates, and maps--all extremely time-consuming and tedious work.  Casilear wrote often, encouraging his friend to paint and praising his talent, but Kensett could not afford the art instruction he needed.  In 1837, he went to work as a banknote engraver for Harr, Packard, Cushman & Co. of Albany, New York.  The following year, he submitted a painting to the National Academy of Design--a painting that not only was chosen for exhibition, but also was favorably critiqued. 

In early 1840, having set aside money for travel, Kensett returned to New York City to prepare to go to Europe.  On June 1, he set sail for London with Asher B. Durand and his friends Casilear and Thomas Rossiter, a young painter whom Kensett had met in  New Haven.  Arriving in London, Kensett traveled on to Hampton Court to meet his English relatives, his paternal grandmother and uncle.  He visited London’s art galleries and painted and sketched in the nearby countryside.   Before the summer was over, he and Rossiter had settled in Paris.  He secured a contract to provide engravings for a Philadelphia firm as his means of livelihood and devoted the rest of his time to improving his draftsmanship.  He took classes at the Ecole Préparation des Beaux-Arts and studied the drawing collections in the Louvre. 

On visits to England made in 1841 and 1843, Kensett sketched avidly, filling notebooks with views made in the vicinity of Richmond, Hampton Court, and Windsor Castle, and setting a pattern of sketching in the countryside that he would follow every summer for the rest of his life.  In the British galleries, he studied the works of the Dutch Old Masters and John Constable and began to use these as models for his own paintings.

From October 1845 through the spring of 1847, Kensett lived in Rome.  He attended classes where he sketched from live models, and he sketched in the countryside outside Rome and around Florence, Perugia, and Venice, places he visited with his artist friends.  He fulfilled commissions for paintings from Americans in Italy, and by 1847 his career was well established.

In November 1847, Kensett returned to the United States to open a studio in New York City.  The five paintings he exhibited at the National Academy of Design the following spring were pronounced by one critic to be of higher quality than work exhibited either by Durand or Frederic Edwin Church.  Kensett’s participation in this exhibition resulted in his election as an associate of the National Academy.  One year later, in May 1849, he was made an aåcademician.

Kensett’s entree into artistic circles in New York and his acceptance into high society were won almost instantaneously.  He was called upon to fill many important roles in the art world.  He was a founder and president of the Artists’ Fund Society, an organization dedicated to the support of indigent artists, their widows, and orphans.  He was chairman of the Art Committee of the Sanitary Fair, which opened in New York in 1864, and he was a founder of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  At the virtual height of this exemplary career, Kensett suffered a fatal heart attack in his New York studio on December 14, 1872.

Paintings by Kensett are in the collections of the Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia; Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the National Gallery of Art, the National Museum of American Art, a division of the Smithsonian Institution, and The White House Collection, all in Washington, D. C.; Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio; and the Saint Louis Art Museum, Missouri.

Biography from The Columbus Museum of Art, Georgia:
John Frederick Kensett was born in Cheshire, Connecticut, on March 22, 1816.  The son of an engraver/publisher, he worked in various shops learning engraving during the 1830s.  During these years, he met and corresponded with artist John W. Cassilear, who encouraged him to become a painter.(1)

Beginning in 1840, he and Cassilear traveled and sketched for seven years in Europe, where Kensett met J.M.W. Turner and Asher B. Durand.  He worked extensively in Paris making copies of the atmospheric landscape paintings by French Baroque artist Claude Lorrain.  He became quite successful after returning to the United States and was elected to the National Academy of Design in 1848.  In the early 1850s, Kensett painted throughout New England before taking his second trip abroad to paint in the British Isles.  In 1858, he took a train excurs ion to make sketches through the Midwest with Durand and Sanford Gifford. After another trip to Europe, he made excursions down the Mississippi River and to Colorado.

He established the Artist's Fund Society in 1865 and was a founding trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1870.  In 1872, he contracted pneumonia while attempting to save the drowning wife of the painter Vincent Colyer at Darien, Connecticut.  Kensett never really recovered and died of heart failure at his New York studio on December 14 of 1872.(2)

Kensett was considered a second-generation Hudson River School painter.  He was influenced by the poetry of William Wordsworth as he contemplated the wonder, majesty and sublime power of nature.  Inspired by the words of William Cullen Bryant, he sensed the embodiment of the divine spirit in trees, flowers, meadows and mountains.  His early training as an engraver led to his later anchoring his paintings with subtle gradations of gray that were the hallmark of an engraver's method for indicating distances.  Instead of painting a bright sky and midday sun, as did his Hudson River School predecessors, he preferred to express nature through a calm, medium light where a broad range of subtle tonalities could be experienced.

1. John Paul Driscoll. John Frederick Kensett: Drawings (University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University, 1978)
2. Other references include Ellen Johnson, "Kensett Revisited", The Art Quarterly, Vol. XX, No. 2, 1967, pages 71-92; Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Last Summer's Work. (Descriptive catalogue of 38 paintings given to the MMA by Thomas Kensett). (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1874); Stephen S. Prokopoff, James K. Kettleworth and Joan C. Siegfriend, John Frederick Kensett: A Retrospective (Saratoga Springs, NY: Hathorn Gallery, Skidmore College, 1967); and Janice Simon, Images of Contentment: John Frederick Kensett and the Connecticut Shore (Waterbury, VT: Mattatuck Museum, 2001); and John Driscoll and John K. Howat, John Frederick Kensett: An American Master (New York: Norton & Company with the Worcester Art Museum, 1985). 2. John K. Howat, John Frederick Kensett 1816-1872. (New York: American Federation of the Arts, 1968), n.p.

Submitted by the Staff of the Columbus Museum, Georgia

Biography from Spanierman Gallery:
A major figure in the American luminist tradition and one of the most renowned painters of the Civil War era, John Frederick Kensett was born in Cheshire, Connecticut, in 1816. He was the son of Thomas Kensett, a British immigrant engraver, and it was in his father's New Haven firm that Kensett first learned to draw.

After mastering the rudiments of the graphic arts, he worked as an engraver in print shops in New Haven, Albany, and New York throughout the 1830's. During this period, he began to paint on his own, encouraged by a friend and fellow artist, John W. Casilear. In 1838, he made his first submission, a landscape, to the annual exhibitions of the National Academy of Design.

Desirous of continuing his training, Kensett traveled to Europe in 1840. For the next seven years, often in the company of artists such as Casilear and Asher B. Durand, he painted and sketched in France, England, Italy, and Switzerland. In 1846, he sent several of his Italian landscapes back to New York, the American Art-Union purchasing two of them.

Returning to New York in 1847, Kensett's career soon began to flourish. He was elected an Associate member of the National Academy in 1848 and reached full Academician status only a year later. It was around this time that he began to make summer sketching trips to the Catskills, the White Mountains, and Adirondacks and to the Newport coast, a practice that he would continue throughout his life. Although he later made several journeys to the American West and Europe, he was most drawn to the mountains, lakes, woods, and beaches of the American Northeast.

Kensett's stylistic approach of the 1850's had its basis in the classical, topographically-detailed landscapes of the first generation Hudson River School. However, during the 1860's, he began to take a greater interest in the effects of light, air and atmosphere. He integrated these concerns into quiet, well-structured land and seascapes characterized by tight brushwork and a subdued palette yet endowed with a unique poetic lyricism -- traits that later led one critic to refer to him as "the Bryant of our painters."

This venue, echoed in the work of Kensett's contemporaries -- Martin Johnson Heade, Sanford Gifford, and Fitz Hugh Lane -- has since been identified as "luminism." Kensett's landscape subjects ranged from the quiet, woodland interiors of New York and New England to the long, uninhabited shorelines of the Atlantic seaboard, making him the first member of the second generation Hudson River School painters to depict the seashore.

One year prior to his death, he completed an important series of thirty-eight paintings of Long Island Sound which are now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum.

A prolific and popular artist, Kensett was also an active participant in the local and national art life of his day. In 1859, he was appointed to the U.S. Capitol Art Commission. Four years later he helped organize the Sanitary Fair exhibition in support of the Union Troops. He also established the Artists Fund Society (1865) and in 1870 was a founding member of the Metropolitan Museum.

John Frederick Kensett died in his New York studio in 1872.

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