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John Frederick Kensett
Hudson River School Painter
American, (3/22/1816–12/14/1872)
This biography was submitted by Spanierman Gallery, LLC
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.

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.

Kensett was born and raised in Cheshire, Connecticut, and learned his father's trade including how to draw. He then worked for the American Bank Note Company in New York City and 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 home canvases, his reputation as one of America's best landscape painters preceded him when he returned to New York City in 1847. 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, and his studio was a gathering place.

He was also an inveterate traveler, spending every summer on painting excursions away from New York City. Unlike many of the Hudson River painters, he 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.

In 1870, he became one of the founders of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and he died two years later in his studio.
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, Conn., 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.
One of the greatest Hudson River School artists, John F. Kensett was originally from Cheshire, Connecticut. Kensett 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 10 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 better 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. The Luminists in general focused on light and atmosphere, instead of painting specific topographical locations.

Kensett more than any of the others pursued this 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". They stunned the New York art world and were regarded as absolute works of genius. They were so well thought of 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. They are still on view there today, 129 years later.

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.

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