In Landscape Paintings, Kensett Found Clarity

The American painter John Frederick Kensett (1816-72), whose late paintings are currently the subject of an enchanting, small-scale exhibition at the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury, Conn., achieved abundant recognition as a master talent in his lifetime. He was, in fact, a pillar of the establishment in the American cultural life of his day-a founder of both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Century Club, a member of the National Academy of Design, and a power in many of the other committees and newly created institutions that set the course of officially approved art and culture in 19th-century New York. Fortunately, he was also an artist of superlative gifts.

It was inevitable, however, that the reputation of so prominent a member of the 19th-century art establishment would suffer a period of eclipse under the impact of the modernist movement in the early decades of the 20th century. Virtually all of the painters of the Hudson River School, with which Kensett was often linked, suffered a similar decline in critical esteem, and not only among the modernists. For the Social Realists and the Surrealists as well as for the champions of the Regionalist movement, our major 19th-century landscape painters were seen to be simply too romantic and too conservative in pictorial style to merit approval. They belonged to a past that had come to be looked upon as an obstacle to artistic progress.

Thus, as recently as the 1950′s, the bulk of the Metropolitan Museum’s capacious collection of 19th-century American landscape paintings remained in storage. As usual, the Whitney Museum of American Art went even further: Its entire collection of 19th-century paintings was de-accessioned. Later, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art also unloaded much of its collection of 19th-century American paintings. What for an earlier generation of collectors and connoisseurs had been esteemed as a proud achievement was now downgraded to a merely antiquarian interest.

This is not the way we see the subject today, of course. If anything, we are now in the midst of a runaway revival of interest in our 19th-century American masters. The exact causes of this latest reversal of taste and judgment are no doubt numerous and complicated, but in my own thinking I associate this revival with the opening of the Met’s new American Wing in 1980. This certainly did much to restore our 19th-century painters to their well-earned place in the history of American art. And in Kensett’s case, the Met made ample amends in mounting a full-scale retrospective of the artist’s work in 1985-86.

The exhibition that Ann Smith and her colleagues have now organized at the Mattatuck Museum is smaller in scale, to be sure, yet it has the great virtue of concentrating on one of the aesthetic peaks in Kensett’s very productive career: the paintings that he devoted to Connecticut coastal subjects in the last five years of his life. In the aftermath of the Civil War, in which Kensett was an ardent supporter of the Union cause, he acquired property on the part of the coast at Darien, Conn., known as Contentment Island, and it was there-on the only property he ever owned-that he created the 20-odd paintings and drawings in the current show.

Like so many other 19th-century American landscape painters, Kensett was both tirelessly peripatetic and tirelessly prolific. In the years preceding this last chapter of his life, he had drawn his subjects from many of the fashionable locales of the period: not only the Hudson River Valley but also Newport, the White Mountains, Lake George, even the wilds of Colorado. He seemed to be constantly on the move, and constantly at work. This remained his routine in his last five years, as he became a regular commuter between a studio in Manhattan and the studio he built for himself on Contentment Island.

Unlike some of his more celebrated contemporaries, however-Frederick Church, say, or Albert Bierstadt-Kensett seems to have had a visceral distaste for grandiosity of any sort. Even when addressing his art to the grandeurs of nature, as he regularly did, he refused all temptation to indulge in operatic effects. His own rage was for order, clarity and transparency. Calm seas and the visual nuances of reflected light on water, rocky masses and open skies commanded an appeal he rarely found in the more violent eruptions of nature, which is no doubt why we find in many of the late paintings far more attention lavished on wide expanses of sky and water than on the landscape itself.

He was similarly averse to the temptation to allegorize nature by transforming it into some sort of moral or social fable. The attempts that have been made to read some of his late “Storm” paintings as allegories of the Civil War remain unpersuasive, for the placid, aesthetic calm that we find in late paintings like On the Connecticut Shore (1871) or Passing Off of the Storm (1872) is everywhere observable in the paintings that preceded the Civil War. They are direct reflections not of Kensett’s political loyalties but of his aesthetic sensibility, withitsunabated appetite for transmuting therefinementsof nature into the kind of pictorial images that would do proper justice to their spirit.

In his move to Contentment Island in the last years of his life, Kensett found on the shores of the Long Island Sound the kind of sea and sky and coastline that were ideally matched to the refinements of his own sensibility, and it is this perfect equation between subject and sensibility that makes the late paintings the triumph of his career.

Ms. Smith and her colleagues at the Mattatuck Museum are thus to be congratulated for their work in organizing this exhibition and for the fine catalog that accompanies it. Images of Contentment: John Frederick Kensett and the Connecticut Shore remains on view at the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury, Conn., through Nov. 18. For information on hours, travel routes, etc., call 203-753-0381 or log on to mattatuckmuseum.org.