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Images of Contentment

Kensett's Landscapes

By Maya Dalinsky | HUMANITIES, September/October 2001 | Volume 22, Number 5

In the last five years of his life, John Kensett shifted his focus from the Western frontier to the frontier in his own backyard. For decades, the wilds of Colorado, the cascading Niagara Falls, and the winding Hudson River had dominated the American landscape painter’s works. In 1867 he returned to his home terrain: the rocky shoreline and mild seascapes of the Connecticut coast.

Born in 1818, Kensett followed in his father’s footsteps and became an engraver in Cheshire, Connecticut. After a trip to Europe, he picked up the paintbrush and began a new career as a landscape painter.

At Contentment Island in Long Island Sound, Kensett produced nearly fifty works from 1867 until his death in 1872. They will be featured in “Images of Contentment: John Frederick Kensett and the Connecticut Shore” at the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury, Connecticut. The exhibition opens September 15 and runs through October, featuring gallery talks, a symposium with guest scholars, and a sunset boat excursion to Contentment Island. The programs were made possible by a grant from the Connecticut Humanities Council.

“Landscapes before the Civil War were often making a political statement about Manifest Destiny or the transcendental infusion of the Almighty in every detail,” says curator Ann Smith. “Nature after the Civil War is a much more poetic, evocative, and personal experience.”

The Contentment Island paintings capture the atmosphere of post-Civil War New England, expressing a longing for tranquility and a desire for refuge from the increasing sprawl of America’s cities. “Successful New Yorkers began building summer homes outside the city in the late 1850s,” writes Smith in the exhibition catalog, “seeking the spiritual and healthful benefits believed to follow from living in a close relationship with the natural world. This retreat to the country, then as now, was also a response to the congestion and contagion of the growing cities and a yearning to return to the simpler, rural life of an earlier America.”

Working in the thick of environmental and naturalist movements headed by writers such as Henry Thoreau and Samuel Coleridge, and inspired by other landscape artists such as Claude Lorrain, Kensett remained at Contentment Island for several seasons at a time over a five-year span. According to Smith, this enabled Kensett to observe the changing cycles of nature and develop his particular artistic vision and relationship with the land. “Contentment Island is the only place he owned land,” explains Smith. “He was fifty-three and at the height of his career.”

Previously, Kensett had painted landscapes from the perspective of a traveler. “He went to exotic terrain of that time -- Niagara, the West - but at Contentment Island he was there all seasons, day and night, sunrise to sunset, painting the same views over and over.”

The Contentment Island landscapes are visual recordings of the environment Kensett observed, and mark a shift in his landscape technique. “The surface of these paintings is softer and painterly,” says Smith. “Conventions used to include trees and rocks on the sides and foreground to frame the landscape like a stage. In Kensett’s paintings those devices are absent.”

“Images of Contentment” is the first exhibition dedicated solely to Kensett’s Contentment Island paintings. For the community that now inhabits Contentment Island and Long Island Sound, Kensett’s paintings are a representation of their world and a way of gauging how nature has changed over the last century.

“There is still an incredible shock of recognition when you look in each direction and see exactly what Kensett did,” Smith says. “The first time I went to Fish Island I looked at the painting and today it looks just like that. I showed a copy to a woman who owns a house there, and the shock of recognition from modern to history was thrilling for both of us.”