February 19, 2012

At the Met: John F. Kensett, Minimalist

 Sunset on the Sea, 1872, oil on canvas, 28 x 41 1/8 in. 

Sometimes we are reawakened to an artist's work by seeing it in a new context, which scrubs our eyes clean and opens a space in our mind. This happened to me during my recent visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art's new American Wing. In a gallery devoted to 19th century landscape painters, one stood out for me in a startling way: John Frederick Kensett. It's as though I saw a completely new painter, one who looked at the world with a sense of its essential nature, and who left the extraneous behind. A painting: sea and sky, the light of sunset gently touching the waves, the only diagonals barely traced in the upper sky. A painting full of light, but not drama; an everyday glory.

 Eaton's Neck, Long Island, 1872; oil on canvas, 18 x 36 in. 

A curve of beach and hillock sweep into the space of sky and sea, each element in perfect balance.

 Eaton's Neck, detail

Kensett's touch is restrained yet visible, alive in its descriptive power.

 Twilight on the Sound, Darien Connecticut, 1872; oil on canvas, 11 1/2 x 24 1/2 in. 

Another still sunset, with elements separated by treed masses, a human trace in the floating boat.

 Passing Off of the Storm, 1872; oil on canvas, 11 3/8 x 24 1/2 in. 

This painting is a marvel of light and air. Clouds are reflected in water of nearly the same hue, yet each is itself: the water transparent and reflective, the clouds indefinite masses. Three simple rectangles make up the composition: water, dark clouds, and the bright band above them.

 Passing Off of the Storm, detail.

Small details of boats, a fisherman, a bird taking flight, are added with quick strokes of the brush; they seem to hardly be there at all, just brief touches on the landscape.

 A Foggy Sky, 1872; oil on canvas, 30 1/2 x 45 3/4 in.

Salt Meadow in October, 1872; oil on canvas, 18 x 30 in. 

I photographed the first four paintings above at the museum, then went to the Met's Kensett website page to see if I could find additional works that fit the feeling I had that day of a painter using minimal means to express a great deal.  I found the two paintings above, which are not on view in the galleries, but in the study collection, so I will try to see them on my next trip. In preparation for writing this post, I pulled my Kensett book, John Frederick Kensett: An American Master, from my studio bookshelf. It wasn't until then that I realized that all the work I'd been so drawn to were part of what is known as Kensett's "Last Summer's Work", a group of 39 paintings that he completed during a three month period in 1872, mainly around his Darien, Connecticut studio on Contentment Island, an amazing achievement. Tragically, Kensett died a few months later, and in 1874 his brother gave this group of paintings to the Metropolitan Museum, many of which are still in the museum's collection. I can't help but wonder how his work would have developed if he had lived; would he have continued to be inspired by the spare landscape on the Long Island Sound, and emptied his paintings even more of incident? In his Last Summer's Work, Kensett has left us paintings which are quietly attentive to specifics of light and landscape, and through that very sensitive attention transcends them.


  1. Thanks for drawing my attention to this work. I am looking forward to visiting these galleries at the Met, you've awakened my attention to this part of their collection!

  2. Thanks for posting these! Kensett's quiet radicalism blew my mind when I first starting studying him way back in graduate school. He's the perfect example of strength in delicacy and restraint.

  3. Altoon, thanks for reminding me of Kensett; I did not know of "the last summer" phenomena. Amazing. Looking at the reproductions on the Met web site, I notice the surface of many of the paintings looks grainy, as in "Twilight on the Sound, Darien, Connecticut", as opposed to "Lake George, 1872", which looks like paint. Does the graininess come from old photos, or is his paint really like that? I wish I could see this exhibit. I believe I remember "Eaton's Neck, Long Island", from many years ago, but I'm not sure.

  4. I'm glad you all enjoyed Kensett's work.
    Erik, the graininess you noticed on the Met's website is a result of the photography, probably not shot in high enough resolution for the enlargements; the paint doesn't look like that. You get a better idea of it from the 2 details I photographed.

  5. another fantastic post. I can't wait to go see these.

  6. oh my god you are my new teacher!

  7. Thanks, Jan and Charlotte.
    Jan, I bet you'll enjoy the show.
    Charlotte, I'm not trying to teach as much as explore my own thoughts and feelings about work I write about. I'm learning as I go too.

  8. Beautiful work. I'll share this post so others can admire his mastery of capturing the essence of the moment.

  9. It is sad to think that we will never know where Kensett could have gone with his paintings should he have lived longer.

    He sometimes painted with James A. Suydam (1819-1865), a "gentleman painter" who became a professional artist late in life and then died young. Suydam's paintings weren't quite as elegant as Kensett's, but his minimalist landscapes predate Kensett's, and he may have inspired Kensett to eliminate the unnecessary details. Compare Suydam's 1860 "Beach Scene, Newport" with Kensett's 1872 "Eaton's Neck".

    1. thanks for that link, Jonathan. The similarity is striking.

  10. Exquisite paintings, Altoon. Thank-you for bringing this painter and his works into my life, will definitely go and see them next time I visit the Met.