Kensett was born in Connecticut, the son of an engraver. He trained under his father. In 1840, he sailed for Europe. Kensett studied the old masters. In Europe, Kensett began to sketch from nature. In 1847, Kensett returned to New York and his career took off. He showed at the National Academy of Design that year. He also took a studio in the New York University Building.
The work that Kensett produced between 1847 and 1855 brought a sense of measured space, warm light, and tranquility to the depiction of raw American wilderness. As his work developed, so did his style; in about 1855, Kensett shifted towards simpler compositions. Kensett turned his brush to quiet, familiar views of New England. Kensett’s mature landscapes show a sense of calm. Kensett succeeded as a painter, but he also succeeded as a public figure where he served on a variety of committees.