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Saturday, July 14, 2012

John Frederick Kensett

John Frederick Kensett in his studio, 1866.
There are three areas of this country where painting in the form of landscapes have their strongest hold. Basically they mark three of the four "corners" of our map--the Northwest, the Southwest, and the Northeast. Florida, I guess, has so many other things going for it (also no mountains) that it seems to be pretty much on a par with the rest of the country with this regard. Naturally, having been settled the longest, it is the Northwest with the longest and strongest landscape tradition, dating back six or seven generations to the Hudson River School and the work of Alvin Fisher, Thomas Doughty, and Thomas Cole. And lest you think only of rocks and hills and rivers and trees, these and other landscape painters in this area also strolled out along the coast adding seascapes to their portfolios. It was, and still is (despite the encroachment of "civilization") one of the most beautiful parts of our country for a painter.

Bash Bish Falls, 1855-60,
John Frederick Kensett, (one of many)
Marking the second, of the six or seven generations to have painted the scenery extending up the Hudson into the Catskill, Adirondack, Berkshire, and White Mountains, the name John Frederick Kensett comes to the fore. Born in 1816, about the time the first generation was just beginning to paint the region, as with so many beginning young artists of the time, Kensett first studied engraving. It seems to have been a practical way to earn a living and study the arts at the same time in early American times. And, like nearly every other would-be painter of the time, he made the obligatory trip to Europe. He stayed seven years. And when he came back, his landscapes were nothing like the busy, often idealized, supernaturally realistic paintings of the first generation.
Lake George, 1860-69, John frederick Kensett
Kensett's landscapes and seascapes were picturesque, pristine, clean looking, and always, suffused with light, so atmospheric one almost forgets to look at the land in the landscape. And always there was water, either the sea, or Lake George in the Adirondacks (above), or Bash Bish Falls (above, left, don't you just love that name) in the Berkshires. He even ventured so far as to paint the granddaddy of them all at the time, Niagara (bottom). Kensett was no slave to the landscape, though. If it would improve his composition, he quite often rearranged the landscape, moving trees, islands, even whole mountains at will (the original man who could move mountains, no doubt). It would appear he was a painter of landscapes, not a landscape painter.  And when he passed the brushes to the next generation of Northeastern painters, they found the simplified grandeur of his work just one small step from the American Impressionism that was shortly to follow.
View of Niagara Fallls, 1855, John Frederick Kensett

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