DescriptionAttributed to JOHN FREDERICK KENSETT (American 1816 - 1872)
Rocky Point, circa 1872
Oil on original unlined canvas and stretcher
11-7/8 x 20in.
Property of a Gentleman
Rocky Point, with its silhouetted wedge of land jutting into a tranquil body of dark water, with a restless sky beyond, epitomizes the art of John Frederick Kensett at its most reductive and abstract. Both of these qualities won the painter tremendous popularity during his lifetime, particularly because they were paired with a meticulous handling that betrays his artistic beginnings as an engraver. Kensett's ability to get so much feeling from the barest essentials of landscape, the intersection of the three planes, sky, water, and land, which have also endeared him to more modern sensibilities. Some scholars have noted affinities between the abstracting tendency of Kensett's late luminist style with "the measured and controlled compositions of Seurat and the compelling design and refined color of Charles Sheeler's works" (John Paul Driscoll, "From Burin to Brush: The Development of a Painter," in John Frederick Kensett. An American Master, Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, MA, 1958, p. 135). Others have pushed the influence of this highly original landscapist even further, proposing his art as a forerunner of Abstract Expressionism-especially the glowing color field works of Mark Rothko, Milton Avery, and Barnett Newman.
Although the present work is undated, it shares numerous qualities with the Kensett's late moody coastal scenes, most specifically with a group of forty paintings and studies Kensett produced during the final months of his life, which have become known as the "Last Summer's Work" of 1872. These works were exhibited together as a group, posthumously, at the National Academy of Design in conjunction with the large auction of "Over five hundred paintings and studies by the late John F. Kensett" [works remaining in Kensett's estate] held at the Association Hall of the Y.M.C.A. (23rd Street and 4th Avenue) in New York, March 24-29, 1873. In 1874, the artist's brother, Thomas Kensett of Baltimore, Maryland, donated the "Last Summer's Work" to the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a memorial to his sibling, realizing that the group of paintings represented an important turning point in his brother's achievement.
As Oswaldo Rodriguez Roque noted in an insightful essay, the "Last Summer's Work" indeed showed Kensett at his most experimental, and indicated a shift in his form of expression ("The Last Summer's Work," exh. cat. Worcester, 1985, pp. 137-9). The paintings were sparer, brushier, and in general much more exploratory in terms of weather conditions and extreme times of day. Indeed, when they were exhibited in 1873, the catalogue often described some of the works as "unfinished" or as "sketches" because of their abbreviated nature, their more minimal articulation of surface detail, and also because the paint, in some cases, did not entirely cover the entire field of the canvas support. John Paul Driscoll noted of Kensett's late efforts: "Unlike Kensett's coastal scenes of the 1850s and 1860s, with their clear atmosphere and quiet presence, his work of the 1870s is more variable in mood, sometimes suggesting an impeding change in the weather. . . For example, [in a work of the 1870s] a low ceiling of dark clouds stretches across the full width of the painting, and ripples in the water indicate a gust of wind. This animation of natural forces is, however, counterbalanced by the clearer and brighter skies and sharp contour of the mountain in the distance, lending an emotional tension to the image that is only occasionally hinted at in earlier work. . ." Driscoll also pointed out that Kensett's late paintings possess a richer, more tactile paint surface, citing the artist's Long Neck Point from Contentment Island, Darien, Connecticut of 1872 (Metropolitan Museum of Art) as a prime example.
The present work has these qualities. It pairs a quiet body of water rendered with very tactile paint application with an ominous sky. In the left distance a curtain of rain falls on the water, causing fog to rise off the warmer surface. On the right the setting sun is struggling to break through some heavy clouds just above the backlit spit of land that resembles a great dozing animal.
Because Thomas Kensett did not restrict the gift of his brother's late work to the Metropolitan Museum, the Museum chose to sell all but 22 of the paintings at auction in 1956 and 1957. None of the sold works match either the dimensions or description of the present picture, which essentially rules it out as part of Thomas Kensett's 1874 gift. However, scholars have noted that the group of "Last Summer's Work" given to the Metropolitan probably did not constitute all of Kensett's last works. The selection seems to have been made in an unsystematic manner, suggesting that there were other late paintings by Kensett which ended up being sold in the vast estate auction at Association Hall in March 1873. There were nearly a dozen paintings among those listed in the Kensett estate sale catalogue of 1873 which closely correspond to the size of the present picture (many of which have not been traced). None of these works, however, is titled "Rocky Point" in the auction catalogue, which suggests that the title may have been assigned to the painting by a later owner. The work from the 1873 Kensett auction (lot no. 309) which most closely matches the description of the present picture is entitled "Study of Water and Fog Cloud" which measured 11 ½ x 19 ¼ in. while the painting which most closely matches the dimensions and the location where Kensett was known to have painted during his final summer was "At Newport, Rhode Island," (lot no. 369, 12 x 20 in.). At present, tracing the present work to a specific painting from the Kensett estate sale must remain speculative, although the physical properties of the picture strongly argue for a date in or very close to 1872.
John Kensett painted his Last Summer's Work in three different locations: Lake George, Newport, and the area in and around Contentment Island, Darien, Connecticut, where Kensett had his studio. Because of the strongly atmospheric quality of the present work, it is difficult to establish securely which of these sites is depicted. If the title "Rocky Point," is, in fact, John Kensett's own, it can refer to two different places by that name in the general region of Darien, Connecticut. One is on the north shore of Long Island (New York), and the other is in Newport.
This unsigned painting was sold at Shannon's Fine Art Auctioneers on October 20, 2005, lot 72 as the work of another American landscapist contemporary with Kensett, Alexander Wyant (1836-1892). The alternate attribution to Wyant also places the date of this work within the same timeframe, circa 1870-72.
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