Published: October 30, 2001
Images of Contentment:
By Ann Smith
WATERBURY, CONN. – Contentment Island is a world apart. It lies just off the coast of Connecticut, in the town of Darien, 40 miles northeast of New York City. Joined to the mainland by a short, narrow causeway, it lies low in the sparkling waters of Long Island Sound, a tangle of thick woods, streams and marshland. Granite boulders piled high by prehistoric glaciers create pockets of shadowed privacy among dramatic shifts in elevation along the wide horizon.
It was a place of undefined form when John Kensett arrived with his friend Vincent Colyer in 1867, its outline merely suggested on Nineteenth Century maps. Salt marshes and restless tides rendered its boundaries fluid to mapmakers then. It remains a place separated from public attention, a cluster of private roads cut off from the bustling village of Darien by Interstate 95, one of the nation’s busiest highways.
Kensett and Colyer came to the area in the aftermath of the Civil War, seeking a place of retreat. They built a home and studios on the island, where Kensett created some of the most remarkable landscapes of his successful career. Between 1867 and 1872, the year of his death, Kensett painted landscapes that were fundamentally different from the work the public had come to expect from him. These paintings, based on the views from his Contentment Island home, captured a nation in transition and influenced the next generation of landscape artists.
The paintings that were inspired by this place are the subject of “Images of Contentment: ,” on view at the Mattatuck Museum through Sunday, November 18.
John Frederick Kensett (1816-1872) was recognized in his own time, as he is in ours, as an American Master, an artist who changed the way the American landscape was seen and painted.
A native of Cheshire, Conn., he achieved the highest forms of recognition awarded to painters in this country, acknowledged by fellow artists, critics, and cultural leaders as one of the country’s leading painters by the middle of the Nineteenth Century.
He was elected a member of the National Academy of Design and a member of its governing council; he was a member of the three-person US Capitol Art Commission; one of the 25 members of the prestigious Sketch Club; an incorporator of the Century Association; chairman of the Art Committee for the Metropolitan Fair; a founder of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and a member of its Executive Committee; a member of the Artist’s Fund Committee.
He was beloved by his fellow painters. The press compared him to the legendary poets William Cullen Bryant and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and named him “the flower of the school of landscape painting we call American.”
At the age of 51 and the height of his career, Kensett bought land on Contentment Island. Landscape painters had been spending time in the countryside in search of subjects for their work for decades. Prominent artists, such as Frederic Church and Albert Bierstadt (along with less well-established artists, such as Thomas Rossiter, a good friend of Kensett’s), built homes and studios in the countryside within commuting distance of the growing art establishment in New York City.
Successful New Yorkers began building summer homes outside the city in the late 1850s, seeking the spiritual and healthful benefits believed to follow from living in a close relationship with the natural world. This retreat to the country, then as now, was also a response to the congestion and contagion of the growing cities and a yearning to return to the simpler, rural life of an earlier America.
By the 1860s, New Yorkers were buying land for summer homes in the area surrounding Contentment Island. Dr Edward Delafield bought land in 1859 in the rocky woods overlooking Contentment Island from the north; the New York publisher George Palmer Putnam bought a home in 1861 in Rowayton, just to the east of Contentment Island; and Harrison Olmstead bought land in 1865 on the southern end of Long Neck Point, overlooking Contentment Island from the west. Indeed, the land that Colyer acquired at Contentment Island in 1867 had been previously purchased by a New Yorker, Benjamin Jutten, in 1856.
Local histories repeat the charming story that Vincent Colyer found property at Contentment Island in 1866 during a journey of discovery on his yacht, sailing up the Connecticut shore from New York City, but it is likely that he learned of the place through acquaintances in the city. The more customary method of travel to the area by the 1860s was by steamboat or train. Steamboats brought passengers from New York to landings at coastal rivers located to the east and west of Contentment Island.
The New York train, which had been stopping in Darien since 1848, added another station stop at Rowayton in February 1868 as a result of the efforts of Colyer and Putnam. The Rowayton station was only a little more than a mile from the Colyer house at Contentment Island, making the city less than two hours away by train.
Contentment Island is located between two small coastal rivers, the Goodwives River and Five Mile River, which had been commercial centers for fishing and shipping in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries. It had escaped development before the arrival of the artists.
Moreover, the island was a place redolent with historic associations – its rocks showed evidence of Indian occupation and it was believed that the Tories hid out in the woods and caves of the neighborhood during the Revolutionary War.
Beyond history, geology shaped Contentment Island into a distinctive place. Like the rest of New England, the coast of Connecticut is a ragged outline of jutting headlands and sheltered coves. But it is distinguished from shorelines elsewhere in New England because Long Island creates a natural breakwater, protecting the coastline. Consequently, winds, waves and storms are milder along the coast of Connecticut than they are along the coast of Rhode Island or Massachusetts.
Exposed to the elements of the open ocean, the shore north of Connecticut is marked by turbulent seas and barrier beaches ground out of the relentless activity of the wind and the tides. The more protected coastline of Connecticut, in contrast, is characterized by calmer waters, pocket beaches, salt marshes, and tidal flats near the slow-moving tidal rivers.i
The coves and headlands around Contentment Island were created as the rising sea submerged ancient hills. There are surprisingly sharp changes in elevation at the water’s edge, with a 20-foot bluff at the southeastern edge of Contentment Island and 60-foot elevations rising near the water’s edge on Long Neck Point to the west of Scott’s Cove and at Delafield Woods to the north of Scott’s Cove.
To the east of Contentment Island, at Five Mile River, there were two dramatic, rocky projections -one at the mouth of the river, on Butler’s Island (now joined to Contentment Island by a causeway), and the other slightly upriver, formerly known as the Loading Rock, because it was used for loading cargo sloops in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries. (Only a portion of the landmark rock remains there today.)
Our view of the landscape Kensett painted has been altered by nature and by man over the last century. The sea continues to rise along the Connecticut coast, by as much as 12 to 16 inches in the last century, covering significant ground in low-lying areas and changing the rock exposures. In addition to the changes brought by natural forces, there have been significant changes as a result of increased settlement in the area.
The New Yorkers who came to coastal Connecticut in increasing numbers between 1875 and 1925 built estates, amusement parks and private residential neighborhoods in the coves and islands around Contentment Island. In 1872, Hugh Collender bought the south end of Long Neck Point and moved the road that had run along the western shore of the peninsula to a high inland route in order to provide access to his new estate. The houses along the high road were visible from Contentment Island.
After purchasing Great Island at Scott’s Cove in 1902, the Ziegler family blasted rock for the home, outbuildings and polo grounds that they built on their estate; they formed a small beach at a northwestern inlet of Scott’s Cove and a yacht basin in the deep cove just south of Great Island.
Subsequent arrivals landscaped the promontories at Long Neck Point and on Contentment Island and built drainage ditches to tame the mosquitoes in Tokeneke, the neighborhood on the mainland north of Contentment Island. They filled in the tidal passages that cut the islands off from the mainland and drained marshland to build houses.
They dug navigational channels in the coastal rivers and built breakwaters and boat piers into the harbors, altering the flow of the water and its influence on the land. The coastal lands east of Contentment Island were altered as well, with lowlands at Butler’s Island filled for a small causeway. The grassy marshlands at Roton Point and Pine Point on the eastern shore of Five Mile River were also drained and filled. On the newly reclaimed land, houses and roads were built.
Changes in the land have altered some of the features of the landscape Kensett painted with the careful observation that was a hallmark of his work. Current residents, however, who have come to know the area in its changing cycles of light and tide, recognize the landscape immediately upon seeing Kensett’s paintings. First-time visitors who know the paintings are immediately in familiar surroundings at Contentment Island, with the Fish Islands as their compass.
The Fish Islands, formed of bedrock rather than the more malleable glacial deposits that formed the nearby Norwalk Islands, are startlingly unchanged from Kensett’s time. Their distinctive form, featured in many of Kensett’s scenes of the Connecticut coast, helps to orient viewers to his Connecticut scenes, and becomes the icon identifying the artist and his place on the Connecticut shore.
Vincent Colyer, Kensett’s close friend and fellow painter, described the area as a place of “unsurpassed views for the painter,” specifically including the Swiss Alps in his comparison. He listed the many points appealing to artists, including “Delafield’s Bluff…and all the points from which the Sound can be seen…Collender’s Point [now Long Neck Point], Strong’s Island [now Great Island, or Ziegler’s Island], Contentment Island and Butler’s Island.”
Attracted to the area for its appeal to the artist’s eye, Colyer bought nine acres on Contentment Island in June 1866 and an additional acre, with a house on it, in August of that year. In March 1867, he sold the first parcel to Kensett and purchased an adjacent 25-acre parcel six weeks later.
Known as a portrait artist and later as a painter of the American West, Colyer was a man of great charitable conviction who worked for a variety of humanitarian causes during the Civil War, including the recruitment of black troops and the care of freed slaves in the South. He also took an active role in the improvement of his Connecticut neighborhood: He assisted in the establishment of a lyceum in Rowayton in 1867 while he served as a volunteer superintendent for the construction of the new depot; after becoming a full-time resident, he was elected to the state assembly to represent the area for four terms between 1877 and 1885.
On Contentment Island, Colyer occupied a substantial house, incorporating a small earlier house, on the highest point of the island. The property was located at the line dividing the property Colyer owned from the land that he had sold to Kensett. Although Colyer later recalled that Kensett intended to build his own home on Contentment Island, Kensett shared the Colyer house during the five years preceding his death.
The house had two large bedrooms, one presumably for Vincent and his wife, Mary Hancock Colyer, on the second floor, and the other, presumably for Kensett, on the third floor. In addition, there was a high-ceilinged studio with large windows on the northeast corner of the second floor, perhaps for Colyer. Kensett, meanwhile, built a separate studio on the high southeastern bluff of Contentment Island, overlooking the Fish Islands and Long Island Sound; it was a short walk from the house.
The house was advertised for rent by the second Mrs Colyer around 1880, after she and her husband had moved into a new house on the south end of the island, which had been converted from an exhibit building in the Centennial Exposition at Philadelphia. The flyer describes in detail the house that Kensett lived in with the Colyers:
“Built on a bluff overlooking deep waters of Long Island Sound, with an unobstructed water view of 30 miles, either east or west. Shady groves, white sand beach, bathhouse, dock; good and safe anchorage for yachts in back cove. Abundance of strawberries, raspberries, currants, apples, pears, etc.; good kitchen garden, well – dug in rock – with abundance of pure cold water, cistern with filtered rain water. New stable, to house three or more horses, carriage room for five or six vehicles, hay loft, sheds for cow and large barn. Workshop, for repairs, all new.
“The house contains 13 rooms and two extra rooms for servants in carriage house; is two stories and Mansard roof; windows and doors fitted with wire nettings and blinds, ventilators on chimneys, piazza on three sides of house, with upper deck covered with awning.
“The kitchen is built in the rear, connected by servants’ dining room with main building and has sleeping rooms for servants over it, well ventilated. The house is nearly new, handsomely furnished, many fine pictures, and provided with heaters for winter. Supplies from grocer, butcher and ice man come to the door. One and one-quarter mile from Five Mile River Depot, express trains to Norwalk and Stamford almost hourly; fast steamboats run to New York daily for 85 cents. Rent is $800 for the season.”
How much time did Kensett spend at Contentment Island? It is not known, but during the years that he owned property there and stayed in the Colyer house, he was also active in New York and continued his extended painting trips in this country and in Europe.
Kensett maintained a studio in New York at 1193 Broadway until 1869, when he moved to the new Association Building, headquarters of the YMCA, at 23rd Street and Fourth Avenue. He occupied two of the 39 studios in the building, which were designed with attached bedrooms. The Association Building, located across 23rd Street from the new building of the National Academy of Design, was the largest, best designed, and most expensive studio building in New York and quickly became a center of arts activities.
In the five years that he was at Contentment Island, Kensett was a founder of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (in 1870) and, as a member of the Executive Committee, was involved in the efforts to secure its first exhibition space (in 1872).
He served on the art committees of the Union League Club (with Colyer and Putnam) and the Century Association. He traveled, frequently in the company of fellow artists, in search of landscape motifs for his paintings, visiting Europe (in 1867), the Mississippi River (in 1868), and Colorado (in 1870), as well as taking sketching trips to the Catskills and Lake George.
Nevertheless, Kensett was on Contentment Island regularly enough to develop a deep understanding of the place, as his critics and neighbors recognized. These visits extended from 1867 to his death at the end of 1872. There are dated drawings and paintings from 1868 and 1871, and there were a number of paintings of the area sold to collectors before 1872.
The house was heated, making it possible to be in residence in the colder months. Although there are no identified winter scenes by Kensett of Contentment Island (or anywhere else in that season), he did spend time there in the “off season” – for instance, in November 1872. The regular train service made it possible to stay on the island and go into the city for the day, as Vincent Colyer did on at least one occasion. The Norwalk newspaper, reporting on Kensett’s death in December 1872, noted that Kensett had been a guest of Vincent Colyer’s at Contentment Island “for the past year” – surely an exaggeration, but an indication that his neighbors in Connecticut thought of Kensett as more than an occasional visitor at Contentment Island.
The number of paintings created at Contentment Island also suggest that Kensett’s time there was more sustained than has been previously recognized. There are as many as 50 paintings by the artist with historical titles that refer to sites on the Connecticut shore. Sixteen of these were part of “The Last Summer’s Work,” the 38 paintings that his executors said were painted at Contentment Island shortly before Kensett’s death.
In addition to the Connecticut paintings sold to collectors before 1872, there were a significant number of Connecticut paintings in the estate auction held following the artist’s death. In March 1873, the executors sold more than 600 paintings in a marathon sale in the exhibition gallery at the Association Building; it continued for six nights and was the subject of keen journalistic interest.
The sale catalogue lists 29 paintings with titles that specifically name the Connecticut shoreline as the subject. These Connecticut titles are only half the number of titles in the sale with specific references to Newport or Lake George, but double the number for Massachusetts, and nearly as many as those that refer to paintings of the Hudson River.
In addition to the paintings that specifically name the Connecticut coast as the subject, there are other paintings certainly done at Contentment Island that are titled with reference to weather patterns or the time of day. For example, “Passing Off of the Storm” includes a view of one of the distinctive Fish Islands in the placid waters of Long Island Sound.
Other paintings from “The Last Summer’s Work,” with nonspecific titles as to location, were described in contemporary newspaper accounts as scenes from the artist’s home or studio at Contentment Island.
Taken together, this group of paintings of Contentment Island is significant for its size, for its view of this place before the alterations of the recent century, and for its distillation of the changing perspectives of American nature.
The paintings are a record of the vista from Kensett’s home and studio in each compass direction, with accurate placement of each material element. Views from similar prospects are painted at the critical moments of light in the cycle of the day: dawn, sunrise, sunset and dusk. Some views are painted in multiples, with variations in size or the addition of distinctive details.
The Contentment Island paintings looking east across Butler’s Island include versions at dawn-“Sunrise Near Darien”; sunrise – “The Old Pine”; midday – “Long Island Sound at Darien”; and, possibly, sunset, “Twilight After a Storm.”
These paintings seem to have been painted from several vantage points on the island: “The Old Pine” was executed from the southeast shore near the artist’s studio; “Sunrise Near Darien” was probably painted from the artist’s third-floor bedroom window, at the highest point of the island, or perhaps from the cupola.
Visible in both paintings is the profile of Roton Point, with Pine Point beyond. “Long Island Sound at Darien” was painted from a lower elevation, on the southern shore, looking toward the low sandy spit at the western end of Sheffield Island. One of two sketches titled “Rowaton” and dated 1868 was taken from a vantage point similar to the view in The Old Pine.
Some of Kensett’s most compelling scenes from Contentment Island are the southerly views, across the Fish Islands, from his studio. These paintings catalogue the varied moods of nature. Turbulent afternoons are pictured in “Gathering Storm on Long Island Sound” and “Passing Off of the Storm; Fish Island from Kensett’s Studio on Contentment Island” captures a more tranquil spirit.
The Fish Islands, to the south, become a beacon for orienting these paintings, as well as the views west from Contentment Island. “Fish Island from Kensett’s Studio on Contentment Island” is a view of the central and western Fish Islands in the three-island cluster seen at high tide on a clear morning.
From a southwesterly angle out of Kensett’s studio, the view stretches across the islands to a low, sandy section of Long Island ten miles away. “Passing Off of the Storm,” a view more directly to the south from the studio, shows a Long Island peninsula of a higher elevation; this part of Long Island is only seven miles away.
The painting captures the central Fish Island at high tide, with its companion islands below the water’s surface. A variety of boats used for tending the oyster beds around the Fish Islands are visible, including oyster sloops, two-masted sharpies, and a flat, narrow skiff that was used for raking up the oysters in the shallow waters at low tide. Visible in the water are the poles marking the boundaries of individual fishing rights to the oyster beds.
The dramatic “Gathering Storm on Long Island Sound” was painted from a high vantage point on the east side of Contentment Island, at an angle that misses the Fish Islands all together. In the distance, a cluster line of large double-masted yachts and schooners in full sail are stretched out in the open Sound.
The western views in the Contentment Island paintings are predominantly views of sunset or twilight, when the skies and the deeply toned land are at their most changeable and colorful. “Long Neck Point from Contentment Island” and a related drawing of the same scene, “Rowaton,” painted from a low point on the southwest shore, looking southwest across Hay Island to Long Neck Point.
Long Neck Point, as seen here, is a low peninsula covered with sand, marsh and salt meadows in these views, before the building of sea walls and the extensive landscaping that followed later in the Nineteenth Century. “Evening on Contentment Island, Darien” and “Twilight on the Sound, Darien, Connecticut” are similar views, seen from the artist’s studio, as indicated by the presence of the Fish Islands in the sight line and the higher perspective.
The views of the Sound fascinated Kensett with the ever-changing colors in the reflected light of the Sound. But at least one view was made from the studio looking north, toward the interior of Contentment Island. “Twilight in the Cedars, Darien” shows the path through the cedars in the center of the property that the artist walked between his studio and the Colyer house, with its cluster of outbuildings.
The artist concentrated on the world visible from his home and studio at Contentment Island; he painted these views again and again. The accuracy of his observation makes it possible to identify the locations. Rather than the land itself, the subject of the paintings becomes the infinite variety of nature’s changing effects, seen through color and light, in locations that had become familiar to the artist through his intimate knowledge of the place.
Nature, as captured in landscape painting, was a talisman for Nineteenth Century Americans. Early in the century, landscape painting had been a record of the remarkable abundance of this continent, a challenge to the established artistic conventions of European academies, and a visible assurance of the Transcendental contract promising rewards to American farmers and pioneers, who were made virtuous by living close to nature.
The nation turned to more modern preoccupations after the Civil War – the tension between a growing urban environment and a countryside struggling with changing economics; between a world created by God and a world created by scientific process; between a world of spiritual truths and one of material realities. Kensett’s paintings of Contentment Island measure this search for the spiritual values in material observation.
This essay, by the museum’s curator, was excerpted from the exhibition catalogue, which also features an essay by Janice Simon, professor of art history at the University of Georgia. The catalogue is available for $41 (including tax, shipping and handling). To order, 203-753-0381, extension 20. The Mattatuck Museum is at 144 West Main Street. Hours are Tuesday to Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm, and Sunday noon to 5 pm. For information, 203-753-0381.
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