March 22: Seeing Connecticut in a Different Light – The Luminism of John Frederick Kensett


Today in 1816, master American artist and internationally-acclaimed landscape painter John Frederick Kensett was born in Cheshire, Connecticut to Thomas Kensett, an English-born engraver and Elizabeth Daggett Kensett, his Connectican-born wife.  By the age of 12, young John was working in his father’s engraving studio, honing his keen eye for fine lines and details, and continued in that line of work until his mid-twenties, when he traveled to England in pursuit of formal training as a fine artist after dabbling in landscape painting for several years.

John Frederick Kensett, circa 1854. (Smithsonian Institution)

For seven years, Kensett traveled extensively around Europe, perfecting his technique as a landscape painter and occasionally sending works to his friends in New York City for exhibitions.  By the time he returned to the United States in 1847, Kensett already had a small but rapidly-growing reputation as a skilled painter, and became nationally renowned for his expressive brushstrokes, attention to natural texture and detail, and use of color to imply natural light.  Kensett’s technique was a stellar example of American luminism, a subset of the famous “Hudson River School” of painters (including Thomas Cole and fellow Connectican Frederic Edwin Church) known for portraying epic landscapes that evoked a transcendental appreciation of nature.  Luminists like Kensett were known for the simpler layouts of their landscapes and abundant focus on natural light.

Most of Kensett’s landscapes depicted scenes from across the northeastern United States, including Lake George in upstate New York, the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and beautiful views of Long Island Sound from the Connecticut coast.  In 1867, Kensett purchased Contentment Island off the coast of Darien, Connecticut, where he set up a studio and painted some of his most iconic coastal scenes.  In 1870, he became one of the founding members of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

In late 1872, a double tragedy struck when Kensett’s close friend and his wife came to visit the artist on Contentment Island.  The wife fell into the frigid waters of Long Island Sound and drowned, in spite of Kensett’s brave efforts to leap into the water himself and try to save her.  Kensett himself died in New York City a few weeks later due to complications from pneumonia that he had contracted during the ordeal.  After his death, his brother donated many of the artists’s unfinished works to the Metropolitan Museum of Art that Kensett played such a large role in founding.  A tragic end to a luminous artistic career that had its origin in a small Connecticut town, on this day in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

Kevin J. Avery, “John Frederick Kensett,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Biography: John Frederick Kensett,” National Gallery of Art

The Complete Works of John Frederick Kensett,”