Painter and engraver. His refined yet powerful landscapes incorporate closely observed particulars of geology, vegetation, sky, and atmosphere, rendered with miniaturistic but painterly touch. Although masterfully organized, serene compositions appear natural and unforced, with sparse, simplified shapes often asymmetrically counterpoising eloquent voids. In the representative Beacon Rock, Newport Harbor (National Gallery, 1857), a large, rocky outcropping at right dominates a delicately naturalistic, slightly hazy summer afternoon. A few foreground rocks and distant headland measure distance at left. Near the middle, far-off sailboats punctuate the sovereign space. Born in Cheshire, Connecticut, Kensett embarked on his mastery of engraving under the tutelage of his English-born father Thomas Kensett (1786–1829). As a young man, Kensett worked in engraving shops in New Haven, New York, and Albany while beginning to paint on his own. In 1840 he left for Europe in the company of John Casilear, Thomas Rossiter, and Asher B. Durand. After visiting relatives near London that summer, he settled in Paris where he continued to support himself with engraving jobs for American firms but also attended drawing classes and copied paintings at the Louvre. In 1843 he returned to England to attend to family affairs, but while there he studied both the English landscape and the work of painters who depicted it. His paintings from this time are broadly executed, with rich impasto. Although his mature technique was much smoother and less aggressive, more closely related to his training as an engraver, this artistic evolution provided a basis for the technical facility apparent in later years. In 1845 Kensett again visited Paris before setting off on the standard grand tour of the Continent. For much of the following two years, he resided in Rome.
When Kensett returned to New York after seven years abroad, his reputation preceded him, for he had forwarded paintings, some bought by the American Art-Union. He quickly became active in the art life of the city, established relationships with major collectors who sometimes fought over his popular work, and eventually ranked among arbiters of American cultural life. Like fellow Hudson River School landscapists, he soon established a lifelong pattern of summer travel to sketch scenes that provided the basis of finished views produced in his New York studio. He visited the major scenic areas of New England and upper New York State, but he also returned to Europe and went west on several occasions, including one journey as far as Colorado. By the early 1850s Kensett had solidified his personal combination of detailed realism and the lambent light that allies his work with luminism and in certain late works prefigures tonalist effects. In his most radical and abstract last paintings, Kensett treated emptiness as an almost uninterrupted delicate, pearly ambience. Although he concentrated on the scenery of the Northeast, with particular attention to the resort locations of his day along the Atlantic shore or fronting inland lakes, his travels produced views of other locales, as well. He addressed a variety of landscape types, but even when painting remote mountain locations, he moderated nature's wildness toward a serenity that seemed to offer spiritual benediction. In 1867 Kensett began regular working visits to Contentment Island, connected by a causeway to the shore at Darien, Connecticut. He purchased land there and built a studio but stayed in the home of his friend Vincent Colyer (1825–88), known for crayon portraits and, later, topographical watercolors of the American West, as well as studio oils taken from these subjects. In November 1872 Kensett contracted pneumonia after unsuccessfully attempting to rescue Colyer's drowning wife near their home. He subsequently returned to New York but died in his studio within a few weeks.