Among the Hudson River School artists, John Frederick Kensett is the acknowledged master of the mode termed “luminism” in American landscape painting. He was born in Cheshire, Connecticut. By 1828, Kensett was employed in his father’s engraving firm in New Haven, then briefly apprenticed with the engraver Peter Maverick in New York, where he met his lifelong friend and future colleague John W. Casilear. However, the death of Kensett’s father in 1829 occasioned the artist’s return to New Haven to work for his father’s partner, Alfred Daggett, until 1835. After a falling out with Daggett, Kensett left to work for engravers, first in New York, then in Albany, until 1840.
Like Casilear and the older engraver Asher B. Durand, whom Kensett met in New York City as early as 1829, Kensett gradually became disenchanted with engraving, wishing to become a landscape painter. In 1840, along with those artists and the aspiring figure painter Thomas P. Rossiter, Kensett set off for England, where he initially connected with family forebears at Hampton Court and admired the works in the National Gallery and the Dulwich College collection. With his fellow artists, he soon moved on to Paris, where he remained over two years, drawing from the antique and from life at the École Préparation des Beaux-Arts and socializing with a small American artist community that included, at various times, the historical painter John Vanderlyn, the landscape painters Thomas Cole and Benjamin Champney, the figure painter Thomas Hicks, and the aspiring genre painter Francis W. Edmonds. The death of Kensett’s grandmother at Hampton Court in 1843 and the settling of her estate drew the artist back to England, where he remained until 1845 and from where, beginning in 1843, he began sending to New York for exhibition some of his earliest landscapes, including views of the scenery near Windsor Castle. By June 1845, Kensett had returned to Paris for the summer but soon moved on to Rome. He sojourned in Italy for most of his remaining two years in Europe, touring and sketching in the towns around the Eternal City, in southern Italy around Naples, then in Florence and Venice. In Rome, his cultural community expanded to include, besides Rossiter, Hicks, and Champney, the figure painters George Baker, Louis Lang, and James Freeman, the landscape painter Christopher Pearce Cranch, and the author George W. Curtis and his brother James. Kensett returned to the United States via Switzerland, France, and England in November 1847.
In Italy, Kensett spent much of his time with the Curtis brothers; back in America, George, a Brook Farm exponent, a friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and, later, an editor of Harper’s Monthly, became one of the artist’s most advantageous friends in navigating New York’s social world as well as orienting him to popular subject matter for his paintings. Kensett became an early member of the the Century Association, accommodating the city’s artists and writers, and in quick succession was elected an associate and a full academician of the National Academy of Design in 1848 and 1849. His subjects around mid-century comprised picturesque views of sites along the Hudson River, at Niagara Falls, in the Catskills and the Adirondacks, throughout New England, and, following an excursion west with a fur trader in 1854, on the Mississippi. Though a few such paintings reveal the impress of the sublime style of Cole, the founder of the American landscape school, most reflect Kensett’s experience with English art and the soberer, more tonal style of his older colleague Durand, with whom in London Kensett had admired the landscapes of John Constable.
The pictures that best manifest Kensett’s singular contribution to second-generation Hudson River School painting, however, may well owe a debt to Curtis’s influence. About 1851–52, Kensett supplied illustrations for Curtis’s Lotus-Eating: A Summer Book (1852), which described and critiqued old and new resorts including rising seaside havens such as Newport, Rhode Island. At Curtis’s suggestion, the two also visited Shrewsbury, New Jersey. Possibly as early as 1853, but certainly by 1855, Kensett began producing markedly reductive views of these and other shoreline locales, spare compositions of simple terrestrial profiles against expanses of calm open water delicately punctuated with a few sailboats on the horizon. They became almost instantly popular with collectors, so many of whom vacationed at the coastal resorts, and Kensett turned them out increasingly until his death in 1872. They are well exemplified in two paintings in the Metropolitan Museum’s collection that are believed to have been made about that year, Newport Rocks and Eaton’s Neck, Long Island. Correspondingly, even Kensett’s inland scenes grew more distilled in the number and placement of motifs. This was nowhere more visible than in the artist’s abundant views of Lake George, which rivaled Newport as his most oft-repeated subject. The Metropolitan’s large Lake George, 1869, painted for the wealthy New Yorker Morris K. Jesup, is perhaps the masterpiece of Kensett’s renderings of this site. In general, however, the artist was usually most effective on canvases of thirty inches wide or less. In those, the delicate texture of his brushwork was concentrated to produce pure and exquisite states of light and atmosphere, today referred to as luminist.
Kensett’s social success is inseparable from the simple, congenial, and generous personality reported by his contemporaries and reflected in his art. Besides his standing at the Century Association and the Academy, he helped found, in 1857, and eventually presided over the Artists’ Fund Society; served on a presidential committee advising on the decoration of the renovated U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C.; became an early member of the patriotic Union League Club; and, as such, eventually chaired the committee that mounted the renowned art gallery of the U.S. Sanitary Fair in New York in 1864. That event, in turn, led to the chartering, at the Union League Club in 1869, of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was founded the following year with Kensett as one of its trustees.
In 1867, Kensett purchased from his friend Vincent Colyer a parcel of land on an island, which he called Contentment, just off the coast of Darien, Connecticut, in the Long Island Sound. He built a studio and worked there in season on the coastal views on which he had staked his reputation. It was also at that site that the artist precipitated his death five years later when he plunged into the sound trying to save Colyer’s wife, who drowned. Recovering in New York from the trauma, Kensett was found lifeless in his studio a month later. He was accorded a funeral at the National Academy of Design and, in 1873, an exhibition of his paintings (including the work of a few other artists) at the Metropolitan. The following year, the Museum welcomed into its collection thirty-eight of Kensett’s latest pictures (dubbed “The Last Summer’s Work” because they were recovered from his Connecticut studio), donated by his brother, Thomas, in 1874. At a meeting of the Century Association in Kensett’s memory in December 1872, one of his many eulogists observed perceptively that the artist’s “profession served only as a finer background for the calmness and equilibrium and sweetness of his personal habits, while his fine moral qualities entered into his works, sobered his judgment and chastened his style.” Seconding the opinion, another speaker exemplified it by singling out Kensett’s “most remarkable picture” among the Last Summer’s Work: “That which presents the sea under the sunlight, with nothing else to divide the interest . . . It is pure light and water, a bridal of the sea and sky.” He was almost surely alluding to the Metropolitan’s Sunset on the Sea, included in the 1874 gift.