PRINT December 1968

Kensett at the Whitney

IN THE COUPLE OF CENTURIES since people’s personalities began to be roughly like what they are today, John Kensett provides one of those infrequent instances of a simple man who produced a rather complex art. Its complexity comes from the fact that Kensett incorporated into his work the salient characteristics of a number of styles—considering how restricted was the range of his subject matter, his eclecticism is remarkable. No doubt he was led to work in this way partly by his temperament—he was always very eager to please by giving people what they wanted, and he seems to have been incapable of rejecting anyone or anything—but it is also true that he came along at an opportune moment, in that many approaches to landscape were then being tried, and this offered him a considerable choice of manners in which to work. At the celebration of him that was held at the Century Association shortly after his death in 1872, Daniel Huntington tried to sum up the major reason for his appeal, and, as Huntington saw it, for his quality, when he remarked that Kensett “had not the certain wearisome detail of the antique school, nor the dreamy indefiniteness of the new sentimentalism,” but that, “free from the prevailing or tempting excesses” he steered a middle course between them.

Kensett never did entirely abandon the heroic overtones of the kind of historical landscape that Cole practiced: they are to be found often in his attempts at stormy skies, in his formats when he paints big, and for that matter in the anecdotal elements in so many of his paintings. But it is characteristic that these elements should be so tiny as often to go unnoticed: he could not believe in them sufficiently to give them a prominent place, but he could not bring himself simply to give them up, either; and of course he shares with the painters of an earlier generation an inability to see these historical motifs he clings to as anything more grand than picturesque genre. Neither was the pure (i.e. wholly naturalistic) landscape of somewhat later painters like Whittredge quite for him: his work often comes across as naturalistic landscape, but, at least during the greater part of his career, it is landscape with the dark foregrounds of Claude to set off a bright middle distance, the oblique subordinate vistas of Elsheimer or Bril, the generalizing that is endemic to the whole tradition of Domenichino. As Huntington said, it is not the precise generalizing of Durand before him or the fuzzy generalizing of Inness later: it’s hard to talk about because it isn’t either linear or painterly, it’s just clear. Kensett is a painter in whose work conventional predispositions, whether of concept or of vision, are held in a balance with unbiased sensation. It is, finally, this directness of sensation, anchored, as in his mature work it is, to the percept that the paint renders, which separates him from a contemporary such as Casilear, to whom he might otherwise have been so close.

Certainly one of the most crucial factors in the formation of his style was his training as an engraver. Kensett hated engraving for many years before he was finally able to give it up altogether, and once he left it he was surprisingly free of the necessity to be interested in it, since unlike so many of his colleagues he did not make a major part of his living from the sale of engravings after his oils; but he never lost the hardness which in that medium is inevitable. The unfortunate thing is that it failed to encourage in him a sense of shape. One might expect that it would, but actually in the (broadly speaking) naturalistic engraving of the second and third quarters of the last century hardness or dryness of touch very seldom goes with clarity of shape: the painterly tradition of the baroque landscape was much too alive to let it. What one finds instead is a rendering that, while it is hard, gives a large place to shading, and so tends toward the corrosion of form that a heavy reliance on chiaroscuro always entails. The result is work in which the contradictions are unresolved. And this difficulty was compounded because to the painterliness that, in Kensett’s mind, was appropriate to proper landscape (Claude) was added the painterliness that was particularly appropriate to naturalistic landscape (Constable): his Italian and English work of the forties make this doubly painterly derivation plain. So that Kensett’s way of seeing and his idea of proper treatment were formed in a very different mold from the technique that his engraver’s training, and the technique that prevailed in the milieu in which he painted, had left him with.

What got Kensett out of this impasse was the influence of a group to which Baur has given the name luminists, and especially of Heade, to whom Kensett was very close when in the late fifties he produced his first realized work. I think that even now our assessment of the luminists is mistaken. Because Lane, whose work was the most consistent and reveals the strongest personality, was a cripple and so rather a recluse, and because he and others like him, including Heade, have only rather recently been rediscovered, we still regard them as tangential to the main development of landscape painting in this country, on which we have not yet got round to changing our views as much as we ought. If one compares Cropsey’s Eagle Cliff, New Hampshire of 1851 with Homer’s Snap the Whip (1872)—the motifs in both paintings are similar, with the cabin in a clearing and the hills behind it—one sees that what accounts for the great difference in the treatment of subject is a concern in the later painting with the rendering of perceived effects of light. I think it must be apparent to anyone who considers the matter without prejudice that this change is the result of the work of such painters as Lane and Heade and, in some of his production, Church, and that far from forming a kind of interlude or tangent they are really at the heart of developments. The particular interest of the work of Kensett’s maturity is that it falls precisely within the limits set by the Cropsey and the Homer and so, unlike the much more irregular output of Heade or of Church, offers in the production of a single painter an organic development from the tradition of the sublime, the picturesque and the literary to a naturalistic painting interested above everything else in the rendering of light.

It is plain how work concerned with perceived effects of light would influence Kensett. As I was trying to say, his problem was form, and where a painter is weak in respect of form he will naturally turn to color. But Kensett did not work in a coloristic tradition, far from it, and in addition the only kind of color he did know was color that fills an outlined shape, and at shape he was poor. It was Kensett’s contact principally with Heade that suggested what he might do, which is to say use color not as hue but as value. The point is that color used as value does not require outlines to keep their integrity and shapes their coherence—and here Kensett found a lesson in painterly baroque work that he could use, for example in Rembrandt, who worked in his late years through value to the total exclusion of outline, in his etchings as much as in his paintings. Even in Kensett’s late work the old problem persists: one realizes that if the rocks in the View Near Newport are so shoddily drawn it is because Kensett’s hues are far too weak to require his shapes to be assertive—and vice versa, since of course the two always do go hand in hand. But in general I wonder if the fault is not ours: we must try to avoid the practice of comparing Kensett’s kind of tonal painting with other kinds that we are more accustomed to. No doubt we would prefer his Gooseberry Island, Newport if, instead of yellows and greys to go along with the browns, we found the stronger contrast of lavenders and blues. In the same way we might prefer the area of rocks in the center of Among the Rocks of Great Waters at Newport if they were not just brown, but some kind of purple with vermilion spots—that is how Monet would have treated them. But that is not where Kensett was trying to get. If one turns to a later version of the same motif (Paradise Rocks, Newport) one finds even less hue––now, the entire canvas is a range of greys. It is in the end unimportant whether or not Kensett was capable of rendering perceived light through hue, and I know that he may very well have tried to render it with value because he couldn’t get it with hue. The fact is that value was the means he adopted, and that in his late work even intensity is a function of value––which is why his paintings at their best (Lake George) reproduce very well in black-and-white: the values imply what little hue there is (Eaton’s Neck) and are able to give at least an adequate idea of the saturation.

It is worth noting, finally, that Kensett and his contemporaries knew perfectly well what he was trying to do. Eight years after Kensett’s death S. G. W. Benjamin remarked that Kensett had found his approach “before the great modern question of the values began to arouse much attention in the ateliers of Paris”; which is interesting, also, because it reminds us that even for their contemporaries the Impressionists’ method was seen to consist principally in the use of values, not of hues, and that we did not discover this fact. With his characteristic sense of measure, Benjamin acknowledged that “naturally, it is not in all (Kensett’s) canvases that this attempt to interpret the true relations of objects in nature is equally evident,” but it is found in the best of them; and we ought to keep in mind that it involves a fidelity not simply to how things look but more precisely to how you see that they look, not how you think they look. It was a remarkably demanding approach, especially for a painter in whose character there seems to have been so very little tension, and we should not be surprised that it failed to last long in the American landscape of the day. It finds its most perfect realizations in the work Winslow Homer did during the few years just before and after Kensett’s death, say between 1866 and 1874, but even then the style was anomalous: the development of painters like Homer Martin or George Fuller, or the entire work of Inness, shows how far percept had been sacrificed to concept under the influence of European currents that swamped American painting late in the century. As for the independence from the French that Benjamin claims for Kensett, that is another question!

Jerrold Lanes