In the luminist mode
JOHN FREDERICK KENSETT was one of the fine 19th-century American landscape painters whose reputations all but disappeared into obscurity toward the end of that century in spite of critical and popular acclaim at the height of their careers. It would seem that those inclining toward luminism, that is, those who made the atmospheric light the implicit subject of the painting, suffered more than those who made a famous scenic spot or grandiose panorama the object of their art. What seems to have happened is that the luminists like Kensett and Martin Johnson Heade fell between the cracks, between the Hudson River School with its gnarled trees and emphasis on wildness and the idealized landscapes of painters like George Inness and the romanticized ones like those of Frederick Church. Happily, the delicate lyricism of Kensett and Heade has found favor and rediscovery late in this century. Although as a young man Kensett was a friend of both Thomas Cole and Asher B. Durand of the Hudson River School, his landscapes were more a case of parallel development than of direct association. An admirer of Jean Jacques Rousseau, he always kept with him a packet of pressed flowers which he had picked at the Frenchman's grave. Every era has its paradoxes. The attitude prevalent in intellectual circles in the United States prior to the Civil War that wild, unspoiled nature and an expanding civilization could coexist harmoniously is to us obviously paradoxical, but to them it was an uplifting vision and resulted in some very beautiful landscapes.
Kensett's father was an engraver in Connecticut and his son followed easily in that trade. He had little difficulty obtaining employment, but he loathed the tedious drudgery of the burin. It should be noted, however, that learning to engrave served him well, in that it allowed him to pay for study in Europe, as well as training hand and eye to note the nuances of the application of a stroke in order to gain a desired effect.
At age 24, Kensett sailed for Europe in the company of several artists, the most prominent of whom was Asher Durand, a successful engraver as well as a founder of the Hudson River School. Kensett left America an unhappy engraver yearning to be an artist and returned seven years later a happy painter with already some critical and financial recognition. He had his first success in England, where he had admired and studied the landscapes of Constable and Turner, when his painting was considered the best in an exhibition at the Society of British Artists. He also studied and painted in Paris and in Italy. He met Americans who were well connected in the art and social world of New York City. These were taken with his beautifully executed landscapes and his genial, kindly disposition. These new friends promoted his cause back home. So, when he returned he had a growing reputation to step into.
His inclination to landscapes fitted in very well with the popularity of the Hudson River School, so, of course, he is linked with it. In the mid-1850s, however, his paintings moved toward the luminist mode, which he would continue to enlarge upon.
This painting is an interesting example showing in one canvas both of Kensett's styles. The whole foreground with craggy rocks and massed trees is quite characteristic of the Hudson River School, which doted on scenes of untamed wilderness, usually with a bit of civilization, which was considered as able to make nature useful without undue disturbance of its primeval beauty.
A reviewer of an 1852 exhibition of the National Academy of Design praised Kensett's landscapes this way: ``American landscape must by its very nature be very different from that of any other country ... the artist in America looks to the free, unbroken wilderness for the highest expression of the new world motive, and thence with some mingling of human sympathy to the clearing and the log cabin;... the strongest feeling of the American is to that which is new and fresh - to the freedom of the grand old forest - to the energy of the wild life.''
WE must remember that this was all before the steam railroads (invented in England in 1825) crisscrossed the ``unbroken wilderness,'' making it accessible to industry, towns, farmers, and vacationers. Thus, we note the primitive condition of the landscape and the Indians on the rock to the far right. These are made conspicuous by a vivid crimson shirt on the left figure. That red is the only brilliantly intense color in the canvas.
The floating sailboats echoing the brown hawks in the pale blue sky and the puffing steamboat on the jutting peninsula (still a recognizable landmark) in the river seem, in their serenity, to reassure the viewer of that constructive interaction of civilization with the wilderness. They liven up an otherwise almost deserted scene.
The riverscape portion of the painting clearly shows Kensett's edging toward luminism. His coloring was always extolled, and even the darkish greens and grays of the foreground are delicately varied and handled with a freer touch than many of his contemporaries used. He could also express a very specific season and time of day. Here we have late spring. The hardwood trees are just leafed out, but not in such profusion that the hills are markedly green. An afternoon haze spreads its pale veil over the contours of the hills and mountains, which are colored in undefinable shades of a soft greenish-pinkish-brown. An impossible color? Yes, but that is exactly the tint of mountains on that type of day before the trees assume their summer verdure.
Kensett early dedicated himself ``to carrying on a steady course of study from nature.'' And this untiring study took him to an increasingly personal idiom in his later, highly simplified, exquisitely luminist coastal scenes. Scenes that have an intimate tranquillity and a forceful quality of abstraction deriving from, it is said, his transcendental faith in the perfection of creation.
He expressed himself in this manner: ``It is a beautiful characteristic of genius, that whatsoever receives its touch is gifted with its immortality. It is by mixing up intellectual and spiritual associations with things, and only so they they have an importance to our minds; Things [sic] are nothing but what the mind constitutes them.''