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John Frederick Kensett 1816-1872

Written by Brett Nelson

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Posted on January 11 2020

A supreme act of courage contributed to the death of one of America's leading artists. John Kensett, the renowned engraver and artist spent his latter years at his home at Contentment Island on Long Island Sound near Darien Connecticut. In the winter of 1872 he plunged into the freezing Sound in an attempt to rescue Mary Lydia (Hancock) Colyer, the wife of his friend fellow artist Vincent Colyer. His attempts were in vain as she died in the ocean inlet and Kensett subsequently developed pneumonia. On 14th December he collapsed in his studio and died of heart failure at the age of 56.

Kensett painted some of his finest work while living on Contentment Island, the year he died he painted Eaton's Neck, Long Island which is now in the collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York which Kensett founded in 1870.

John Frederick Kensett was born on March 22nd 1816 in Cheshire, Connecticut and was educated at Cheshire College. Engraving ran in the family and John studied engraving alongside his immigrant father Thomas followed by his uncle Alfred Dagget.

He worked as an engraver in New Haven, Connecticut until 1838 and then he decided to move to New York City where he worked engraving bank notes. But after two years he decided he wanted to travel and he went to Europe to study painting. There he met his lifelong friend Benjamin Champney and the two of them teamed up to travel around Europe painting and sketching together. It was during this period Kensett developed an affinity for Dutch landscape.

After seven years travelling around Kensett and Champney returned to America and Kensett set up a studio in New York City where he made his home and he is best known for his landscape paintings of the city and of New England which he loved.

Although he was establishing himself as a great American painter he still had a yen for travel and visited most of North East America and the Canadian Rockies as well as returning to Europe several times. In 1850 Kensett and Champney set off on their travels again and visited Fryberg, Maine and Conway where Kensett did the sketches for one of his most famous paintings Mount Washington from the Valley of Conway.

Kensett always had an affinity to New England and he became one of the leading painters of the Hudson River School and many of his best paintings were painted around the area. In 1849 he became a full member of the National Academy of Design.

On 17th January 1870 Kensett achieved his greatest accolade when he was elected as one of the founder members of the board of directors of the original Metropolitan Museum of Art

View our John Frederick Kensett Gallery