March 22: Seeing Connecticut in a Completely Different Light


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 Connecticut-born wife. Displaying an early aptitude for art, John was working in his father’s engraving studio by age 12, honing his keen eye for fine lines and details. He continued in that line of work until his mid-20s, when he decided to move to England in search of formal training as a fine artist specializing in landscape painting,

John Frederick Kensett, circa 1854. (Smithsonian Institution)

Kensett traveled extensively around Europe for seven years, perfecting a landscape-painting technique that emphasized contemplative, simplified scenery illuminated by a cool, hard and diffuse lighting style. Kensett occasionally sent works to his friends in New York City for display in exhibitions. By the time he returned to the United States in 1847, Kensett had already achieved a small but rapidly growing reputation as an artist. Greater recognition soon followed, as Kinsett became nationally renowned for his expressive brushstrokes, attention to natural texture and detail, and use of color to imply natural light.

Kensett’s technique provides a stellar example of an art style later classified as American luminism. This was a subset of the “Hudson River School” whose painters, (including Thomas Cole and fellow Connectican Frederic Edwin Church) were known for portraying epic landscapes that evoked a transcendental appreciation of nature. Luminists such as Kensett differed from their colleagues in producing simpler landscapes with an 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 especially, 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 helped found 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 for a late autumn visit to the artist’s home on Contentment Island. His friend’s wife fell into the frigid waters of Long Island Sound and drowned, despite Kensett’s brave attempt to save her by leaping into the dangerously cold water himself. Kensett caught pnuemonia as a result of the failed rescue attempt, and died just a few weeks later in New York at age 57.

After Kensett’s unexpected death, his brother donated many of the artist’s unfinished works to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the institution that John Frederick Kensett had played such a large role in founding. This provided a lasting legacy to a luminous artistic career that had its origin in a small Connecticut town, today 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,”