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John Frederick Kensett (1818 - 1872)

Lot 66: John F. Kensett (1816-1872)

Christie's

December 1, 2005
New York, NY, US

More About this Item


Description

Entrance to Newport Harbor
signed with conjoined initials and dated 'JFK 1855' (lower right)
oil on canvas
14 x 24 in. (35.6 x 61 cm.)

Artist or Maker

John F. Kensett (1816-1872)

Exhibited

Los Angeles, California, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, American Paintings from Los Angeles Collections, May 7-June 30, 1974.
Los Angeles, California, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Pertaining to the Sea, March 23-May 2, 1976, no. 25.
Worcester, Massachusetts, Worcester Art Museum, and elsewhere, John F. Kensett: An American Master, March 24, 1985-January 19, 1986.

Literature

Los Angeles Times Calendar, June 2, 1974.
American Art Review, September-October, 1975, p. 65.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Pertaining to the Sea, exhibition catalogue, Los Angeles, California, 1976.
J.P. Driscoll and J.K. Howat, John Frederick Kensett: An American Master, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1985, p. 108, illustrated.

Provenance

Mrs. Perry Osborne, New York.
Kennedy Galleries, Inc., New York.
Acquired by the present owner from the above, 1971.

Notes

Property from the Collection of Arthur and Nancy Manella

Even at the outset of his career, John Frederick Kensett achieved considerable acclaim for his depictions of the American landscape. After seven years of training abroad, Kensett returned to America in 1847 and immediately embarked on a career grounded in the close study of nature. Writing in 1867, Henry Tuckerman made note of his early success: "He commenced a series of careful studies of our mountain, lake, forest, and coastal landscape; and in his delineation of rocks, trees, and water, attained a wide and permanent celebrity. Year after year he studiously explored and faithfully painted the mountains of New England and New York, the lakes and rivers of the Middle States, and the Eastern sea-coast, selecting with much judgement or combining with rare tact the most characteristic features and phases of each. Many of these landscapes, patiently elaborated as they were from studies made from nature, at once gained the artist numerous admirers and liberal patrons." (Book of the Artists: American Artist Life, New York, 1967 ed., p. 511)

Entrance to Newport Harbor is the earliest known work from an important body of paintings created by Kensett from the mid-1850s to 1864 depicting Beacon Rock. Executed at the same time as his paintings of the Shrewsbury River, the Newport works are pivotal in the development of Kensett's painting style demonstrating a transition from the more traditional Hudson River School aesthetic to a more modern Luminist treatment of light and form. Kensett "became well known for his ability to endow a scene with his own tranquil, poetic feeling. (He) shifted from the more conventional anecdotal picturesque mode derived from the tradition of Cole and Durand, to the quiet openness, light, and simplification of form, color, and composition that is now recognized as his mature style and associated with the phenomenon of 'luminism.'" (J. Driscoll, "From Burin to Brush," John Frederick Kensett: An American Master, exhibition catalogue, Worcester, Massachusetts, 1985, p. 99) Newport would prove to be a significant locale where Kensett could explore the distinct landscape of coastal New England and by the mid-1850s when Entrance to Newport Harbor was painted, his adoption of these new aesthetic principles were becoming fully realized.

The present painting serves as an earlier version of the artist's 1857 work, Beacon Rock, Newport Harbor (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) and the 1864 painting Marine off Big Rock (Cummer Gallery of Art, Jacksonville, Florida). The most notable variation on the final painting is Kensett's choice to replace the shoreline with an expanse of water that extends off the lower edge of the canvas. This adjustment, as well as the overall brushwork and rendering of light and form, creates a rigid formality to the final composition. In Entrance to Newport Harbor there remains a freshness to the treatment of the composition that clearly indicates the spontaneous yet highly finished manner in which Kensett executed the painting directly from nature. "Each succeeding image in the Beacon Rock series--which numbers at least four paintings--reveals Kensett's subtle refinements of compositional elements toward an increasingly abstract end. In the earlier versions [including the present work], Kensett's treatment of texture is more painterly, and he instills the scene with a sense of quiet motion, especially in the rippling waves and the activity of the fishermen." ("From Burin to Brush," John Frederick Kensett: An American Master, pp. 107-08)

The vantage point of Entrance to Newport Harbor is seen from the beach of Brenton Cove. Along a diagonal line, waves gently roll into the shore leading the viewer into the scene, intersecting with the immediately recognizable shape of Beacon Rock extending from the right edge. The hillside of rocks and trees leads to a middleground where a softer palette outlines the plateau of Fort Adams to the west. The horizon is a diffusion of light that reveals hazy details of the distant town of Newport. Dr. John Driscoll comments about works from this period that "the emphasis on contour tends to flatten forms into abstract shapes that extend laterally beyond the confines of the canvas, enhancing the sense of lateral space. This, coupled with the balance between the masses and voids in the asymmetrical composition, which is organized around a strong horizontal line, promotes a feeling of calm, harmony, and measured order in nature unmatched in any of Kensett's earlier paintings." ("From Burin to Brush," John Frederick Kensett: An American Master, p. 103)

In addition to the underlying structure Kensett has used to establish the overall organization of the scene, he has also used small compositional devices to lead the viewer into the depth of the painting and draws attenttion to the transcendental sublime of man and nature. Subtle touches of red pigment underlie the rocks in the foreground and are then reintroduced in the figures in the dory centrally located in the water and again in the flag at left. This dory, along with the sailboats featured in the entrance to the harbor and again dotted along the horizon, further underscore this complexity of the scene as well as Kensett's choices to juxtapose man and nature. "In the Beacon Rock and Shrewsbury River paintings, the features of the site succumb to the demands of Kensett's vision. Light takes on not only substantiality but also an almost iconographic significance as it isolates a particular time and setting and suggests the eternity and universality of nature." ("From Burin to Brush," John Frederick Kensett: An American Master, p. 108)

"Despite the formal role these physical elements play in the composition, the real subject of these paintings seems to be the color, light, and atmosphere, which envelop and crystallize the scene. This effect is a result of Kensett's silvery palette as well as the juxtaposition of compact masses of land with great horizontal expanses of sky and water, which creates a sense of spatial infinity. Kensett's attention to smooth surfaces, heightened by the shimmering reflections on the water, removes any sense of the artist's hand, thereby diminishing the gauges by which the viewer apprehends time, sound, and motion." ("From Burin to Brush," John Frederick Kensett: An American Master, p. 103)

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