John Frederick Kensett is a remarkable artist whose work forces us to reassess an era, revealing again how much the painter can contribute to the general historian, if only the general historian has eyes to see. For the period during which Kensett worked, straddling (as it does) the Civil War, is generally described as rough, violent, vulgar, dedicated to crude expansion. The terms Mr. Howat uses, in his perceptive catalogue, to describe Kensett's pictures--" subtle," "elegant," "delicate," "simple"--would seem to denote virtues alien to that American environment.

The assumption would naturally be that Kensett would have been ignored by his contemporaries, "a violet by a mossy stone, half hidden from the eye." But in fact he was greatly admired in his own time, and not only by a narrow elite cowering from the boisterous environment. He was popular and well paid, a civic as well as an artistic leader, widely considered a major ornament to American life.

These hushed pictures, speaking in so low a voice that they can hardly be heard in the strident clashes often emitted from museum walls, were painted to hang over the fireplaces of private homes, where they distilled their sweetness quietly into the domestic ear. And, as drays moved noisdy outside on city streets, Kensett's rendition of healing mountains and waters and fields soothed the poetic souls of businessmen home from their countinghouses.

Kensett was probably the most influential member of the second generation of the Hudson River School. However, he was later so completely forgotten, with the whole school he led, that so knowing a cultural historian as Lewis Mumford, in his The Brown Decades published in 1931, attributed the early growth of American artistic interest in nature almost altogether to writers like Thoreau. He passed over the Hudson River School (getting its name wrong) in only part of a sentence:

An earlier version of this essay appeared as the Introduction to John Howat John Frederick Kensett, 1816-1872 ( New York: The American Federation of Arts, 1968).


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