In the 1850s through 1860, John Frederick Kensett painted a series of at least five landscapes of the "Shrewsbury River" (now the Navesink River) along the New Jersey shore. The paintings are striking in their design and yet convey an atmosphere of translucent calm, for which they are justifiably renowned.
A splendid example is included in "Painting the American Vision," an exhibition of Hudson River School landscapes from the New York Historical Society, on view at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts starting July 30. The exhibition travels to the Columbia Museum of Art in Columbia, South Carolina, later this year, and then to the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas in 2012.
Art historians have described Kensett’s paintings of the Shrewsbury River as having evolved from a trip in the fall of 1853 at the invitation of Kensett's friend, author and lecturer George Curtis.
However, letters viewable at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art website make it clear that Kensett had become acquainted with the area over a year earlier, most likely in connection with fellow artist and friend Thomas Prichard Rossiter.
This and other clues lend a more intimate air to Kensett’s Shrewsbury River paintings.
Kensett and Thomas Rossiter had been friends since at least the 1830s. As aspiring artists, they had traveled to Europe together in the 1840s. In 1851 Rossiter married Anna Ehrick Parmly, then in her early 20s, and Kensett attended the wedding.
Anna was one of four daughters of Eleazer and Anna Maria Parmly. Eleazer was "one of the major figures in the history of American dentistry," a wealthy and accomplished member of New York society.
When not in the city, the Parmly family gathered at "Bingham Place," a sprawling estate on 275 pastoral acres spanning the peninsula between the Shrewsbury and Navesink Rivers along the New Jersey shore.
The Bingham Place estate encompassed much of what is now Rumson, then known as Oceanic, New Jersey. It was a wide-open landscape of ocean views, orchards, lawns, and cattle-dotted pastures. There the Parmlys opened their doors to family, friends, and the summer breeze.
Rossiter, newly-married into the Parmly family, was likely the reason that Kensett paid a social visit to Bingham Place in the early summer of 1852.
On July 11th, 1852, having reluctantly departed, Kensett wrote Rossiter who was still at Bingham Place:
"New York to me now is that of a deserted place…marking a dismal contrast to the green lawns at Bingham Place. I saw the receding shores of Shrewsbury & the line of dust which marked your homeward course & finally the last glimpse of the Locust trees that shade the pleasant mansion & happy inmates at Bingham with any thing but a joyous spirit."
Kensett was charmed not only with Bingham Place, but also with the three Parmly daughters who roamed its grounds: Mary, in her early 20s; Julia, in her late teens; and Louisa, the youngest at thirteen years old. A portrait of the Parmly daughters, painted by Rossiter, is now in the Smithsonian Museum of American Art.
On October 18, 1852, he wrote Rossiter, "My best regards to Mrs R. & friends at Bingham Place—not forgetting bright eyed LouLou—"
Kensett seems to have been referring to little Louisa. He soon painted her a keepsake.
It turned up at an August 2006 taping of the PBS Antiques Roadshow in Philadelphia, purchased with a companion painting at a yard sale for $35.
The appraiser turned over one of the paintings to display the inscription (the other painting being "similarly inscribed") which read, "Louisa Parmly from J. F. Kensett," and a date in July 1853.
The appraiser understandably misread "Louis" instead of "Louisa," but it is clear from looking at the inscription that the recipient was indeed "bright eyed" Louisa.
It also seems possible that one of the paintings is a view at the Parmly estate, looking toward the distant ocean.
Louisa was not the only Parmly daughter to receive a Kensett keepsake. In 1856, he painted a small scene of a scrub-covered hill looming over a placid ocean inlet dotted with sails, with a bright sandy strip in the distance.
The view would have been painted on, or very near, the Parmly property, looking across the Navesink River with the Highlands on the left.
On the back it is inscribed, "To Miss Julia Parmly / from J.F.K. / May 30th ’56." The painting is now in the collection of the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park in Woodstock, Vermont.
This is the view that Kensett recorded in his important series of Shrewsbury River paintings, including the masterpiece in the collection of the New York Historical Society (image above). Whether it was the first time he painted this particular scene is not known.
Aside from any artistic intentions Kensett may have had, the Shrewsbury River view probably evoked memories of serene summer days, a vast country estate, its family and guests, and perhaps even the laughter of the three Parmly daughters floating on an ocean breeze.
Kensett, a lifelong bachelor, was apparently as fond of Mary, the second oldest Parmly daughter, as he was of Louisa and Julia. It seems likely that Mary would also have received a painting, though it is not immediately locatable.
Mary Parmly’s affection for Kensett, however, seems certain. At Kensett’s funeral in December 1872, Mary (then married to Charles Ward, a New York banker) came to pay her last respects. Jervis McEntee recorded the scene in his diary, online at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art:
"At the close of the services nearly everyone came to look upon his dead face and many were overcome. Mrs. Ward, Dr. Parmelee’s [sic] daughter whom I have always understood Kensett loved, and if report be true was beloved by her once, lingered a little while about his coffin, stooped and picked up a flower that had fallen to the floor and laid it on his breast, leaned over and smoothed his hair upon his forehead and turned sadly away, who knows with what regrets and tender memories."
Some of those memories would have been of the New Jersey shore twenty years earlier, and possibly the bright blossom of an artist’s umbrella stuck into the sandy soil, facing the Atlantic and its distant sails, and of the "generous, amiable, and genial man" sketching underneath.
"Antiques Roadshow | PBS." PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. Web. 06 July 2011. <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/roadshow/index.html>.
Driscoll, John Paul., and John K. Howat. John Frederick Kensett: An American Master. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1985. Print.
Ferber, Linda S. The Hudson River School: Nature and the American Vision. New York: Skira Rizzoli International Publications, 2009. Print.
Gabrielan, Randall. Rumson: Shaping a Superlative Suburb. Charleston, SC: Arcadia, 2003. Print.
Thomas Prichard Rossiter and Rossiter Family papers, 1840-1957. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.