Son of an English immigrant engraver, John Kensett lacked enthusiasm for that medium and became one of the most accomplished painters of the second generation of Hudson River School painters. His reputation is for Luminism, careful depiction of light, weather, and atmosphere as they affect color and texture of natural forms. He was particularly influenced by the painting of Asher Durand in that he focused on realism and detail rather than the highly dramatic views associated with Thomas Cole. Going to the western United States in the mid 1850s and the 1860s, he was the first of the Hudson River School painters to explore and paint the West.
Kensett was born and raised in Cheshire, Connecticut, and learned his engraving from his father, Thomas Kensett with whom he worked in New Haven, Connecticut until 1829. He continued working until 1840 as an engraver of labels, banknotes and maps and was employed part of that time by the American Bank Note Company in New York City. There he met Thomas Rossiter, John Casilear, and other artists who urged him to pursue painting. In 1840, he and Rossiter, Asher Durand, and Casilear went to Europe where Kensett stayed for seven years and supported himself by doing engraving but became accomplished in landscape painting.
Having sent canvases of Italian landscapes back to New York, he had a reputation for skillful painting that preceded him. When he returned to New York City in 1847, he was an “instant success” and very sought after by collectors. Two of his Italian landscapes had already been purchased by the American Art Union. By 1849, he was a full member of the National Academy of Design and was generally popular among his peers. His studio was a gathering place with travelers stopping by to see his canvases and to identify “precise locations in the Catskills or Newport or New England in the oil sketches and drawings that covered his walls.” (Zellman 170). For the women, he was a popular bachelor, “romantic looking with high forehead and sensitive expression.” (Samuels 262)
He was also sought after by many organizations. Among his activities were serving on the committee to oversee the decoration of the United States Capitol in Washington DC, and becoming one of the founders of the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
An inveterate traveler, Kensett spent summers on painting excursions away from New York City. One of these trips was a special painting excursion with fifteen other artists sponsored by the B & O Railroad from Baltimore, Maryland to Wheeling, West Virginia. Unlike many of the Hudson River painters, Kensett painted coastal views, a subject he began pursuing in the 1850s. It was a subject that lent itself to his skill in depicting heightened light, color and reflection. Beginning 1854, he traveled in the West, first going up the Mississippi River and then the Missouri River in 1857, to Colorado with Worthington Whittredge in 1866, and in 1870 back to Colorado with Whittredge and Sanford Gifford.
He died two years later attempting to rescue the drowning wife of fellow artist Vincent Colyer.
Peggy and Harold Samuels, The Illustrated Biographical Encyclopedia of Artists of the American West
John Cuthbert, Early Art and Artists in West Virginia
Michael David Zellman, 300 Years of American Art