The Radical Eye
Here's a view of Long Island Sound by the 19th century American painter John Kensett, who I've mentioned before. Superficially it looks like a whole lot of other pastoral landscape painters. But I think it's anything but ordinary. There is a startlingly abstract composition that hides beneath Kensett's delicately handled textured grasses. Squint your eyes just a tiny bit and look at how Kensett ties together the dark green shapes distant trees with the darkened horizontal line of the reddish distant field. To make this work his foreground had to be held much lighter in tone than was customary.
I think Kensett, like all the great painters, had a remarkable grasp how much stranger and more surprising reality is than how we usually imagine it. He knew a lot, but when necessary he could let go of preconceptions and just see more clearly than most. The composition he ended up with was hinted at by the actual landscape he painted from, but it required his radical eye to strip away the interruptions and incidentals, leaving the sharp and surprising composition he presents to us.
Below is a plein air oil Kensett painted of Niagara Falls that particularly speaks to me. My family lived in nearby Rochester, NY and took me when I was about six to see the Falls. I remember mostly that at that age they scared me to death. I already knew the world was way bigger than I was, and here was this raging torrent of water that looked dangerous as all get out. I remember my dad, always a bit of a dare devil, loved it.
Kensett concentrates his attention on just a few key features. One is the silhouette of the shoreline, especially stated at the far right side of the painting. The other is the exquisite horseshoe of the waterfall itself. The water takes a hard 90 degree turn and plunges down. To add drama, Kensett restricts the pure whites in the left side of the painting to just the vertically falling water- all the other whitecaps on the river's surface are kept to a darker off white.
One of the great things about this little painting is how few contrasts there are in the foliage. The painter knew a painting, especially a small one like this, can only say a few things, and he carefully saves up his contrasts and accents for his favorite shapes. Everything else is toned down. Actually way down.
Something that is often forgotten in our time about painters like Kensett is that most of his oils were painted back in the studio from outdoor drawings done at locations such as the Catskill Mountains like the drawing below. This wasn't an all bad thing. When a painter paints from a drawing they have previously done, there is an extra remove from the authority of the source.
So often painters can get "taken over" by their source without realizing what is happening. Nature especially is so big and so powerful she can seem to cast a spell over you. If that happens, enjoy the moment of reverie, but then come back to the present. Maybe what is so radical about a painter like Kensett is he combines a willingness to be moved by what he was seeing in the landscape, but combined that with a clear-eyed objectivity toward what was actually developing on his easel. To balance the deep flow of emotion with such open eyed clarity of purpose is pretty amazing.