In the mid-1850s John Frederick Kensett began to turn his attention from scenes of mountains, lakes, and woodland interiors to coastal views such as Beacon Rock, Newport Harbor. His work also shifted from the dramatic landscape tradition of Thomas Cole to a quieter, more contemplative style notable for its carefully observed effects of light and atmosphere, muted colors, subtle tonal variations, and simplified compositions. Kensett's experience of Newport, Rhode Island, which he visited numerous times starting in 1854, may have contributed to these changes in style.
Fascinated by Newport's rocky coastline, secluded beaches, and quiet harbors, Kensett painted numerous scenes of that distinctive shoreline where massive rock formations are balanced by open expanses of water. Beacon Rock, Newport Harbor shows a view from the cove across Newport Harbor with the large mass of Beacon Rock on the right and Fort Adams on the left. Sailboats ply the waters, small waves lap the foreground shore, and a lone fisherman stands on a rock at water's edge. The image is remarkable for its indelible sense of calmness, clarity, and quiet. Everyday existence is seemingly transfixed, locked in space by Kensett's carefully structured composition and precise brushwork.
More information on this painting can be found in the Gallery publication American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part I, which is available as a free PDF at https://www.nga.gov/content/dam/ngaweb/research/publications/pdfs/american-paintings-19th-century-part-1.pdf
lower right, JF in ligature: JF.K. 57
Possibly Jonathan Sturges [1802-1874], New York, and Fairfield, Connecticut; his son, Frederick Sturges [d. 1917], New York, and Fairfield, Connecticut; his son, Frederick Sturges, Jr. [1876-1977], Fairfield, Connecticut; gift 1953 to NGA.
- The Hudson River School and the Early American Landscape Tradition, The Art Institute of Chicago; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1945, 86, 121, no. 130, as Newport Harbor.
- An Exhibition of Paintings and Prints of Every Description on the Occasion of Knoedler One Hundred Years 1846-1946, M. Knoedler and Co., New York, 1946, no. 55, as Newport Harbor.
- De Gustibus...An Exhibition of American Paintings Illustrating a Century of Taste and Criticism, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1949, no. 11, as Newport Harbor.
- Exhibition of American Paintings from the Collections of Members, The Century Association, New York, 1949, as Newport Harbor.
- Extended loan for use by The White House, Washington, D.C., 1953-1960.
- Paintings by American Masters, Fifth Anniversary Exhibition, Kalamazoo Art Center, Michigan, 1966, 8, as Newport Harbor.
- John Frederick Kensett 1816-1872, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts, Ohio; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Cummer Gallery of Art, Jacksonville, Florida, 1968-1969, no. 28 (organized by American Federation of Arts).
- American Light: The Luminist Movement, 1850-1875, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1980, 53, 55, fig. 59.
- La Pintura de Los Estados Unidos de Museos de la Ciudad de Washington, Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City, 1980-1981, no. 15, color repro.
- John Frederick Kensett: An American Master, Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1985-1986, 57, 108, 148, pl. 20.
- En Ny Värld: Amerikanst landskapsmaleri 1830-1900 och ett urval samtida skandinaviskt landskapsmaleri, Nationalmuseum Stockholm; Gothenburg Art Museum, Sweden, 1986-1987, 89-90, no. 60.
- Art and the Empire City: New York, 1825-1861, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2000-2001, no. 37, repro.
- Larkin, Oliver W. Art and Life in America. New York, 1949: repro. 206, as Newport Harbor.
- "Accessions of American and Canadian Museums: January - March 1953." Art Quarterly 16 (Autumn 1953): 251.
- Raben, Mary Kathleen. "American Luminism, 1830-1970." M.A. thesis, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, 1966: 19, repro. 84, as Newport Harbor.
- Howat, John K. John Frederick Kensett, 1816-1872. Exh. cat. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts, Ohio; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Cummer Gallery of Art, Jacksonville. New York, 1968: no. 28.
- American Paintings and Sculpture: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1970: 76, repro.
- Moore, James C. "The Storm and the Harvest: The Image of Nature in Mid-Nineteenth Century American Landscape Painting." Ph.D. dissertation, Indiana University, Bloomington, 1974: 194-195, 269, fig. 154, color repro., as Newport Harbor.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 1975: 559, no. 850, color repro.
- Andrus, Lisa Fellows. "Measure and Design in American Painting, 1760-1860." Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University, 1976: 272-273, repro. 415.
- American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1980: 187, repro.
- Sullivan, Mark White. "John F. Kensett, American Landscape Painter." Ph.D. dissertation, Bryn Mawr College, 1981: v, 132, 134-141, 143, fig. 19, as Newport.
- Williams, William James. A Heritage of American Paintings from the National Gallery of Art. New York, 1981: 118, repro. 120.
- Garrett, Elayne Genishi. "The British Sources of American Luminism." Ph.D. dissertation, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, 1982: 82, 276, fig. 70.
- Mrozek, Donald J. "The American Idea of Recreation and the Changing Role of the National Parks." Conspectus of History 1 (1982): 20, fig. 1.
- Brown, Milton W. One Hundred Masterpieces of American Painting from Public Collections in Washington, D.C. Washington, D.C., 1983: 68, color repro. 69.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 549, no. 834, color repro.
- Driscoll, John Paul, and John Howat. John Frederick Kensett: An American Master. Exh. cat. Worchester Art Museum; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Worcester and New York, 1985: 57, 108, 148, pl. 20.
- Wilmerding, John. "Walt Whitman and American Painting." Antiques 132 (November 1985): 998, color repro. 999.
- Wilmerding, John. American Marine Painting. Rev. ed. of A History of American Marine Painting, 1968. New York, 1987: 53, color repro. 52.
- Sullivan, Mark W. "John F. Kensett at Newport: The making of a luminist painter." Antiques 137 (November 1990): 1032, color repro. 1030-1031.
- American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 217, repro.
- Craven, Wayne. American Art: History and Culture. New York, 1994: 217-218, color fig. 24.
- Kelly, Franklin, with Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr., Deborah Chotner, and John Davis. American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part I. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1996: 391-394, color repro.
- Stokstad, Marilyn. Art History. 2 vols. Revised ed. New York, 1999: 2:999-1000, fig. 27.30.
- "Rethinking 'Luminism': Taste, Class, and Aestheticizing Tendencies in Mid-Nineteenth-Century American Landscape Painting." In The Cultured Canvas: New Perspectives on American Landscape Painting edited by Nancy Siegel. Lebanon, N.H., 2012: 139, fig. 4.9, color pl. 14.
The support is a moderately fine, plain-weave fabric that has been lined. There is cusping along all four cut edges. The fabric was prepared with a white ground; in some areas, such as the rocks and the water at right, a thick reddish brown imprimatura layer was also applied. The paint is generally very thin throughout the water and the sky, but areas of low impasto and thicker applications of wet-into-wet paint are evident, especially in the rocks and foliage. The paint layer is in good condition, with some scattered losses around the edges, and has minimal abrasion. In 1960 the painting was relined. At that time, discolored varnish was removed prior to inpainting. The varnish has become heavily discolored.