One of the foremost Hudson River School artists, John F. Kensett (1816-1872) was originally from Cheshire, Connecticut. Kensett began his artistic career as a bank note engraver in the roaring financial market of the 1830's. When the "Wild Cat Era" (named after one of the colorful images engraved on the paper currency of a short- lived bank) ended with the Panic of 1837, Kensett went abroad to study painting in England and France. For almost 10 years he studied the works of the old masters, with a frequent companion, Asher B. Durand, Thomas Cole's great friend. Durand's influence was considerable as Kensett's oils are noted for their sense of tranquility, as opposed to the almost violently dramatic feel of Cole. By the time Kensett returned to the United Sates in 1848 he emerged as a mature artist, and quickly became one of the pillars of the New York art world.
His style evolved from the first generation of the Hudson River School style into what is known as Luminism. The Luminists in general focused on light and atmosphere, instead of painting specific topographical locations, and Kensett more than any of the other artists pursued this “negative space” tendency towards abstraction. When he died in 1872, after rescuing neighbor Vincent Colyer's wife from drowning in long Island Sound, his studio was discovered to contain a series of not quite finished paintings, since titled "Last Summer's Work." They stunned the New York art world and were regarded as absolute works of genius. They were so well thought of that the infant Metropolitan Museum of Art, an institution Kensett and his fellow Union League Club members founded, made a group of 39 landscapes of Lake George, and Long Island Sound the nucleus of its painting collection.
Fast forward, the Met, eternally afflicted with affected accents, one wag remarked to this writer that he knew Philippe deMontabello when he was just “Phil” at Harvard, well the Met has issues with American art. Always has. So despite being founded by the Hudson River School the would be Euros who run it always dismiss their American collection with an affected world weary sigh and in the past have either sold it off at auction or tried to hide it in the storage bins, Rarely are large groups of 19th century American art on display until recently with the rebuilt and revived American wing opened to the public. Much to the chagrin of its would be Euro scholars the American wing is a popular destination unto itself. Of the Kensett Last Summer series some fifteen plus were disposed of at minor auctions such as Plaza Art Galleries in the mid to late 1950’s. Some for a pittance such as $50 dollars at auction. The market has long since spiraled upwards.
In early March this writer wandered through the Metropolitan Museum with European artist and AAD contributor Rauli Mard. Being a cosmopolitan sort the tour started in the European Impressionist section, and after that concluded we went for the American Wing. Rauli was not disappointed. In particular by accident in the American Wing Gallery 761 were a series of transcendent works by John F. Kensett all hung together. Perhaps more so than in the past, the Met has made a conscious decision to hang like examples by an artist together when displaying works from its permanent collection, be it Picasso, van Gogh, Cezanne and in Gallery 761, John. F. Kensett, The “Last Summer works” were on view 144 years after they were painted.
These kind of images of people tranquilly coexisting alongside nature, is the best example of Luminism. A contemporary of Kensett, the writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, coined the term of transcendentalism for the near religious epiphany that occurred when the human eye attempted to take in a stunning vista of a landscape at its most sublime moment. Heavy verboseness aside, stunning sights on the Darien coastline of Long Island Sound or the Mountains of New England must been what inspired both Emerson and Kensett in their prime.
The Metropolitan Museum now has an extra location for its paintings. Most of these works are on view in galleries 761 and 774 of the original building on 82nd and fifth Avenue, the Met Breuer is their new installation in the building on 75th Street at 945 Madison Avenue that until recently housed the Whitney Museum of American Art
Examples of the Darien series housed elsewhere:
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