John Frederick Kensett was one of the most important artists of the Hudson River School, known for his poetic depictions of the American countryside. Born in Connecticut, Kensett trained under his father Thomas, an engraver, and began working in print shops in New Haven and New York in 1830s. His career took flight after a seven-year sojourn in Europe, where he studied painting alongside John William Casilear and Asher B. Durand. Back in New York, Kensett turned his focus to American scenery, making sketching tours across the country. In 1849, the same year he was elected a full member of the National Academy of Design, he traveled with Casilear and Durand to the Catskill Mountains, where the trio spent four months working in the woodland surrounding Thomas Cole’s former home. The expedition proved emblematic: Cole had died the year before, leaving a void at the Hudson River School that Kensett and Durand would soon fill.
Painting intimate landscapes that celebrated the American wilderness, Kensett came to lead the naturalistic (as opposed to Romantic) vein of the Hudson River School. He viewed nature as God’s own work of art and attempted to portray the wonder of divine creation in every rock and tree, capturing their texture and form through careful observation and inspired rendering. Initially celebrated for his woodland interiors and panoramic landscapes, Kensett turned to a limited register of sea and sky in the final decade of his life. Drawn from the landscapes of Lake George, Newport, and Contentment Island, his late work brought Luminism to its zenith, heralding a new language of silence and repose. The abstracting impulse visible in Kensett’s late work articulates the universality of natural form through a metaphysical transcendence of the specific scene; the emphasis in on pictoral shape rather than physical weight, silhouette instead of volume—stripping landscape to its essential impression.
Remarkable for his intelligent mind and generous temperament, Kensett was—both personally and professionally—one of the most influential artists of the Hudson River School. He served on the Art Commission of the U.S. Capitol Building and was a founder of the Artists Fund Society and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Met held a special retrospective on the artist in 1986; today his work is collected by every major museum, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the National Gallery of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the White House.