Luminism: The Adirondacks as a "Separate Peace"

The end of the Civil War introduced new religious-related conceptions of the Adirondacks and new styles of painting. Many Adirondack artists, having participated in the war, returned to the Adirondack region for its peace and quiet (Mandel 18). This resulted in the establishment of the region’s first artists’ colony in Keene Valley where artists like Frederick Kensett and philosophers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson embraced transcendentalism and reveled in the healing powers of the wilderness (Mandel, 19).  Exposure to transcendentalism, which focused on the tranquil, harmonious aspects of nature, led artists and other academics toward the belief that God and nature were one (Mandel 18). Consequently, luminist paintinngs surfaced, which reflected this existing peace and harmony between the environment and God.

For luminist painters, God was seen in the stillness of nature and not necessarily in its wildness (as was depicted in Thomas Cole’s paintings) (Driscoll 62).  More specifically, John Frederick Kensett aimed to portray the harmony with which God created the universe in his paintings (Driscoll 63), seeking to evoke a “quiet dialogue with nature” (Mandel 18). He achieved this by focusing on quiet water scenes and by meticulously including the colors linking the earth, air, water, and light (Mandel 18).

John Frederick Kensett’s Lake George (1856) (lower left) and Lake George (1869) (lower right) exemplify the harmonious, contemplative nature of luminist paintings.  In each painting, Kensett focuses on the water and its absorption of light, also using color schemes that unify the entire painting (Mandel 79).  For example, in Lake George (1856) he uses pink tones in the mountains that mirror similar tones in the clouds, joining the different elements of the painting (Mandel 79).  Thus, Kensett uses color to unify the landscape and convey the existing harmony between God and the environment.  These paintings differ from the detailed, documentary-like landscapes that characterized earlier paintings meant for surveys.  They also do not attest to God’s control over the environment as Cole’s paintings do.  Instead they emphasize color in order to depict the harmony that exists between God and nature, illustrating the common view of the Adirondacks as a place of peace and quiet following the Civil War.                      


                                     Lake George (1856)                                                                               Lake George (1869)


Works Cited

Driscoll, John Paul and Howat, John K.  John Frederick Kensett: An American Master. Worcester Art Museum, 1985. Print.

Mandel, P. C. Fair Wilderness: American Paintings in the Collection of The Adirondack Museum (A. W. Gilborn, Ed.). New York: The Adirondack Museum, 1990. Print.


Image Sources (in order of appearance)

Banner courtesy of:

Lake George (1869) courtesy of: