Bash-Bish Falls, Massachusetts

John Frederick Kensett (American, 1816–1872)


75.88 x 61.28 cm (29 7/8 x 24 1/8 in.)

Accession Number


Medium or Technique

Oil on canvas

On View

Waleska Evans James Gallery (Gallery 236)





Like Thomas Cole, John Frederick Kensett extolled the drama of the rocky rushing waterfalls found in the American landscape. Kensett had trained as an engraver and traveled abroad before settling in New York City in 1847. By 1855 when he painted this version of the southwestern Massachusetts cataract Bash-Bish Falls, the artist had made two trips to Niagara and had depicted other well-known picturesque falls, including Trenton [48.438], Rydal, and Catskill. Commissioned by the important New York collector of American and Dutch painting James Suydam, this scene of Bash-Bish may have had special appeal for Kensett’s patron because of its visual association with waterfalls portrayed by the seventeenth-century Dutch master Jacob Ruysdael, whose works were then greatly admired. Kensett and his patron also shared a deep interest in geology, and rocks feature prominently in Kensett’s depiction of the falls.
Although Kensett was likely familiar with the Native American myth of a woman named Bash-Bish who had been condemned to death at the site, he chose to focus instead on a realistic view, using carefully blended pigments to capture the appearance of the rough rocks, creating a thickly scumbled surface achieved by applying a glaze, then working over it. Having sketched from nature throughout the Northeastern United States and Europe, Kensett displayed a remarkable facility for rendering textures, ranging from rushing and gently rippling water to moss-covered rocks and lacy foliage. The small scale of the bridge in relation to the height of the gorge, which Kensett enhanced by choosing a low vantage point from the lower pool, is reminiscent of British painter J. M. W. Turner’s far more dramatic views of the St. Gothard pass in the Alps (for example, The Teufelsbrücke, St. Gotthard, about 1803, Kunsthaus Zürich). Kensett probably knew Turner’s scenes: he had traveled both to Switzerland and England, where the Turner Bequest was prominently displayed at the Tate Gallery, and he likely saw the popular engravings made after Turner. The vertical format of Kensett’s scene is also closely related to Cole’s earlier paintings (for example, Falls of the Kaaterskill, 1826, private collection) and is similar to Hudson River School painter Asher Brown Durand’s closely observed oil compositions [63.268] of scenes from nature, which also date from the mid-1850s.

This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).


Lower right: JF.K. 1855. [JFK in monogram]


1855, sold to Governor Hamilton Fish (1808-1893), New York, for $300. 1945, with Thomas J. Gannon, Inc., New York; 1945, to Maxim Karolik, Newport, R.I.; 1948, bequest of Martha C. (Mrs. Maxim) Karolik to the MFA. (Accession Date: June 3, 1948)

Credit Line

Bequest of Martha C. Karolik for the M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Paintings, 1815-1865