John Frederick Kensett (American, Cheshire, Connecticut 1816 - 1872 New York)
Mt. Mansfield from Malletts Bay, Lake Champlain, ca. 1860
Oil on canvas
9 3/8 x 18 1/4 in. (23.8 x 46.5 cm)
Gift of John G. D. Paul, 1955
Mt. Mansfield from Malletts Bay, Lake Champlain embodies the mature style of John F. Kensett, and is a superb example of that branch of Hudson River school painting now commonly called luminism.
The strong horizontality, asymmetrical composition, and extreme simplification of forms, together with the artist's precise draughtsmanship, refined palette, and subtle modulation of tonal values, create a tranquil and evocative view, in which water, sky, and light itself are the main protagonists.
Despite its title, Kensett's painting focuses on the watery expanses of Malletts Bay, just north of Burlington, rather than on Mt. Mansfield. Vermont's loftiest peak, Mt. Mansfield is located about thirty miles due east of the bay. It has been a major tourist attraction since the 1850s, and a frequent subject for artists, such as Jerome B. Thompson (1814-1886), Charles L. Heyde, Aaron D. Shattuck, and Sanford R. Gifford (1823-1880), who painted near views of the mountain and its slopes, often adding trail guides, campers, and other signs of civilization.1 In Kensett's painting, the mountain, although centrally placed, is relatively insignificant, and, despite the outbuilding at the far right, there is a haunting absence of people and animals.
Kensett's attention to detail made him extremely popular with American Pre-Raphaelites, but his style is only coincidentally aligned with their work.2 His paintings, and in particular Mt. Mansfield from Malletts Bay, Lake Champlain, were second-generation manifestations of the Hudson River school. Although here Kensett does not depict the New World as an Edenic wilderness, as did Thomas Cole (compare his Lake with Dead Trees), the isolation of the scene, the absence of any humans or animals, and the precise yet atmospheric depiction of light infuse the painting with a divine presence of a different sort. These luminist qualities link Kensett's mature work with that of Jasper Francis Cropsey, as well as Gifford and Frederic Edwin Church. In 1864 the American collector and writer James Jackson Jarves compared Kensett to the journalist and romantic poet William Cullen Bryant, adding that Kensett's paintings have "a phantom-like lightness and coldness of touch and tint, which give them a somewhat unreal aspect...[and which] take all the more hold on the fancy for their lyrical qualities."3
Wolfgang Stechow dated the painting to about 1860, but it is a difficult work to date so precisely,4 and could have been painted as early as 1860 or as late as 1869. One can see a definite change in Kensett's painting style during the mid to late 1850s,5 but after about 1860 his style remained remarkably consistent, and therefore stylistic analysis alone is not particularly useful for dating. Kensett is known to have visited Lake Champlain only two times, in August 1848 and in the summer of 1853, but he often painted scenes he had seen and/or sketched many years earlier. And while there is a preponderance of asymmetrical compositions in Kensett's paintings from the mid 1860s on, there are also a significant number of such compositions from the previous decade.6 Mt. Mansfield from Malletts Bay, Lake Champlain does bear a remarkable similarity to two dated paintings by the artist from 1869 and 1870, especially in the brushwork of the grass and trees and, in the 1869 work, in the presence and shape of a dominant tree with bright red leaves.7
Kensett was born in Cheshire, Connecticut, on 22 March 1816. From about 1828 he trained and worked as an engraver in New Haven, first with his father and later with his uncle. He continued to work as an engraver in New York City, New Haven, and Albany until his departure for an extended period of travel and study in Europe from 1840 to 1847. Kensett spent seven years in England and on the continent, primarily in London and Hampton Court, Paris, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. He was in Naples by mid-April 1847, and in May he painted The Temple of Neptune, Paestum(AMAM inv. 04.432). Following his return to the United States in October 1847 Kensett settled in New York City, but continued to travel extensively. In addition to more local trips, he returned to Europe in 1856, 1861, and (possibly) 1868; lived briefly in Washington, D.C. (1860), traveled on the Missisippi River (1868), and to Colorado and the Rockies (1870). After contracting pneumonia in Connecticut in 1872, he died of heart failure at his studio in New York on 14 December 1872.
During his lifetime, Kensett was generally regarded as one of the finest among those second-generation artists of the Hudson River school who built upon Thomas Cole's literal transcriptions of Northeastern scenes and created quiet, intimate, and serene landscapes.
Kensett generously supported artists and artistic organizations, such as the National Academy of Design (elected full member 1849), the U. S. Capitol Art Commission (appointed 1859), and the Sanitary Fair exhibition of 1863-64, which raised funds to support the Union Army's medical services. He served as the founder and president of the charitable Artists' Fund Society from 1865 to 1870, and was active as a founder and trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1870. He was a diligent and prolific artist, who produced numerous drawings (including Newport, AMAM inv. 77.4) and over six hundred paintings.
Tuckerman, Henry T. Book of the Artists: American Artistic Life, Comprising Biographical and Critical Sketches of American Artists. New York, 1867, pp. 510-14.
Johnson, Ellen H. "Kensett Revisited," The Art Quarterly 20, no. 1 (1957), pp. 71-92.
John Frederick Kensett: A Retrospective Exhibition. Exh. cat., Hathorn Gallery, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, N.Y., 1967.
Sullivan, Mark White. "John F. Kensett, American Landscape Painter." Ph.D. diss. Bryn Mawr College, 1981.
Driscoll, John Paul, and John K. Howat. John Frederick Kensett: An American Master. Exh. cat. Worcester Art Museum, Mass., 1985.
Collection John Stratton Gilman, New Hampshire, from John F. Kensett8
Collection Mrs. John Stratton Gilman (wife of above, formerly Eliza Weyl), Baltimore (by 1893)9
Possibly collection of Charlotte Abbot Gilman Paul (daughter of above) and D'Arcy Paul
Collection J. Gilman D'Arcy Paul (son of above), Baltimore, by whom given in 1955
Baltimore, Fifth Regiment Armory, 1893. Exhibition of Revolutionary Relics and Fine Arts in Aid of the Maryland Revolutionary Monument Fund. Easter week. Cat. no. 13 or 14 (both noted as owned by Mrs. J. S. Gilman).
Stechow, Wolfgang. Catalogue of European and American Painting and Sculpture in the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College. Oberlin, 1967, p. 92, fig. 16.
The painting is generally sound and in good condition. The canvas was relined and the painting cleaned in 1966, removing the discolored varnish; the painting was then recoated with polymer varnish. There are small losses to the paint surface and ground along the left edge, and a small loss in the sky left of center corresponding to an imperfection in the original canvas support. The paint appears to have been very fluid on application, and the white ground is visible in many places. The leaves and highlights on the trees are more thickly painted; the artist used the shape of the brush to model the water (e.g., lower-left scallop pattern), and there is some modeling in the right foreground and in the sky, where the artist has scratched into the wet paint.
1. Reproductions of such paintings can be found in Vermont Landscape Images, 1776-1976(exh. cat., Robert Hull Fleming Museum, Burlington, Vt., 1976), pp. 58-61.
2. Although Kensett did correspond from 1862 until early 1866 with the American Pre-Raphaelite artist C. H. Moore, Moore initiated the contact and there is no discernible stylistic influence from Moore to Kensett. For a contemporary observation, see Henry T. Tuckerman, Book of the Artists: American Artistic Life, Comprising Biographical and Critical Sketches of American Artists(New York, 1867), p. 511. For the correspondence, see Kenneth Myers and Margaret Favretti, "'In Most Extreme Need': Correspondence of C. H. Moore with J. F. Kensett," Archives of American Art Journal 26, no. 1 (1986), pp. 11-17.
3. James Jackson Jarves, The Art-Idea: Sculpture, Painting and Architecture(originally published Boston, 1864), rev. ed., edited by Benjamin Rowland, Jr. (Cambridge, 1960), pp. 192-93. Jarves's readers of the mid 1860s would have clearly understood the comparison to Bryant.
4. Wolfgang Stechow, Catalogue of European and American Painting and Sculpture in the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College (Oberlin, 1967), p. 92.
5. These changes can be summarized as a shift from Claudian tripartite and narrative composition to simplified and relatively abstract design; from a bright to cool palette; and from painterly to smooth facture.
6. For similar works from 1855 to 1872, see John Paul Driscoll and John K. Howat, John Frederick Kensett: An American Master (exh. cat., Worcester, Mass. and New York, 1985), color plates 16-27 and 29-35. A similar Kensett painting of Lake George is dated "c. 1860s" by Kenneth W. Maddox in Barbara Novak, Nineteenth-Century American Paintings: The Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection(New York, 1986), pp. 84-85.
7. The 1870 painting, Lake George, is in the collection of The Brooklyn Museum; see John Paul Driscoll and John K. Howat, John Frederick Kensett: An American Master(exh. cat., Worcester, Mass. and New York, 1985), pl 34. The 1869 painting, Mist Over the Lake, which may also be a view of Lake George, was in the sale New York (Christie's), 23 September 1992, lot 24.
8. The Kensett-Gilman connection was mentioned in a letter from Charles Parkhurst to J. Gilman D'Archy Paul in 1955.
9. The painting was exhibited in Baltimore in 1893 as the property of Mrs. J. S. Gilman.