John Frederick Kensett was an American engraver and landscape painter associated with the second generation of the Hudson River School. The artist became highly distinguished during his lifetime, becoming one of the leading figures of the movement. Kensett's production was especially distinctive for his exquisite renderings of light effects over landscapes with thin layers of paint. The artist became one of the pioneers of a style known as Luminism.
John F. Kensett was born on March 22, 1816, in the city of Cheshire, Connecticut. By the age of twelve, Kensett was apprenticed by his father, an engraver, in his firm in New Haven. Later, the young artist briefly studied under the engraver Peter Maverick in New York. While in the Big Apple, he met fellow engravers Asher Brown Durand and John W. Casilear, who became a lifelong friend.
However, upon his father's passing, Kensett returned to New Haven for his uncle Alfred Dagget, who was also his father's partner. He worked there until 1835, leaving due to a falling out with Dagget. He worked as an engraver in New York, and then, in Albany.
Kensett, Casilear, and Durand's early careers followed a similar path. Beginning their careers as engravers, they became increasingly disenchanted with the medium and would eventually seek landscape painting as their primary form of artistic expression. By 1840, the three went to Europe to study art and broaden their visual repertoire, a common practice for young American aspiring artists.
At first, the artists went to England, where he admired the artworks at the Dulwich College and the National Gallery. They later went to Paris, where Kensett remained for over two years. At the French capital, Kensett trained drawing from life and antique at the Ecole Preparation des Beaux-Arts. He also made acquaintances and socialized with the American artistic community, including artists such as Benjamin Champney, Thomas Hicks, Francis W. Edmond, and the Hudson River School's founder, Thomas Cole.
The artist returned to England in 1843. By that time, he started to send his artworks back to the United States, which helped solidify his reputation as an artist. These artworks included his depictions of the scenery around Windsor Castle, such as his Windsor Woods.
In his last two years in Europe, the artist traveled extensively through Italy, resulting in paintings such as The Shrine - A Scene in Italy. During this period, Kensett met and spent most of his time with George William Curtis and his brother James. George was an American public speaker and writer who became closely associated with the Transcendentalist movement and the distinguished Harper's Monthly editor.
When the painter returned to the United States in 1847, Curtis, well acquainted in the New York social circles, became a pivotal figure in assisting Kensett to navigate such spheres. He also provided the artist with popular subject matters for his production.
By 1849, Kensett was elected as a full academician at the National Academy of Design. During the 1850s, Kensett's artworks focused on picturesque renderings of the regions along the Catskills, the Adirondacks, New England, Niagara Falls, and the Hudson River.
During this period, some of Kensett's works were inspired by Thomas Cole, with his sublime vision of the American landscape. However, his overall production presented expressive and vigorous brushstrokes and a more substantial influence of his time in Europe, especially of the more down-to-earth vision of the English landscape paintings. According to scholars, Kensett's tonal palette was more closely related to the style of Asher Brown Durand. His compositions became increasingly simplified, exuding an enhanced sense of calmness.
In 1851 and 52, Kensett's compositions began to follow the stylistic direction that rendered his fame. Kensett is often considered one of the artists responsible for developing the American landscape style known as Luminism. Luminism branched from the Hudson River School and was characterized by a keen attention to light's effects upon a landscape, creating tranquil sceneries with a soft and hazy atmosphere. According to scholars, some of the pinnacles of this production are View of the Shrewsbury River and Sunset on the Sea.
The care and attention to detail that Kensett represented nature is the influence of Transcendentalist philosophies, in which the approach to spiritual truth is translated by contemplating the sublimity of nature.
Many artists of the second generation of the Hudson River School, such as Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Edwin Church, would aim their production towards the recently discovered American West. However, Kensett's artworks continued to depict the Eastern American regions. He became primarily known for his depictions of coastal areas, such as Lake George, Bish-Bash Falls, Beverly, Massachusetts, and Newport, Rhode Island.
During his later career, Kensett maintained his high standings in New York's artistic and social circles while also being admired by fellows artists. By 1870, the artist was one of the founders of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In 1867, the artist bought a land plot on Contentment Island in the Long Island Sound from his friend Vincent Coyler. There, Kensett built a studio where he worked on the coastal scenes that rendered his fame. It was also there that the artist plunged into the water trying to save Vincent Colyer's wife, who drowned. During this sad episode, the artist contracted pneumonia, which allied with heart disease, would later reap his life five years later.
John Kensett passed away on December 14, 1872. His death virtually became a national tragedy.
John Frederick Kensett consolidated his name as one of the most pivotal American landscape painters. Highly regarded and respected by both critics and fellows artists, Kensett became a leading figure and a significant inspiration for the second generation of the Hudson River School.
Kensett is especially important for being one of the progenitors of the style known as Luminism, characterized by a keen attention to lighting effects on the landscape and translating them with thin layers of paint over the canvas. This method enabled the artist to create beautifully atmospheric coastal landscapes by comforting hazy sunlight that permeated the composition, enhancing the picture's overall sense of tranquility.