Published: May 8, 2012
The Bennington Museum will present “Rockwell Kent’s ‘Egypt’: Shadow and Light in Vermont,” on view June 9⁏ctober 30.
A tiny, sepia-colored photograph gleaned from a family album shows Rockwell Kent (1882‱971) standing on a rocky precipice high on the slopes of Red Mountain in Arlington, Vt. He faces the camera, smiling nonchalantly, with his back to a hazy, indistinct landscape. Looking at this snapshot, it is impossible to understand the sheer magnitude of the scene that unfolds behind the artist.
Due south from his Arlington studio †which still stands today, little more than a rudimentary shack adjacent to a bluff on the 200-acre hill farm that the artist called “Egypt” †the broad, awe-inspiring Valley of Vermont unfolds. Mountains seem to march into the distance like waves on an ocean, the Taconic Range to the west and the Green Mountains to the east, eventually converging and disappearing into an atmospheric haze behind Bennington’s Mount Anthony, situated center stage more than 20 miles south.
With the arc of the heavens above and the bowl of the earth below, standing in this spot feels as though one is poised at the end of the earth, absorbing the vastness of eternity. This is not the insular, landscape people often associate with Vermont, with its isolated rural villages and farms snugly tucked away in valleys and hollows, boxed in on all sides by mountains. Rather, the southerly view from Kent’s Arlington studio sings of freedom. Overflowing with material and spiritual richness, this landscape nourished the artist’s body, mind and spirit from the summer of 1919 to the summer of 1925.
In a series of powerful paintings, including “Autumn” and “Nirvana,” Kent made use of this sublime view as a sort of theatrical backdrop. While conveying heady universal themes the figures and the scene they inhabit remain believable and avoid cliché. The taproot messages Kent sought to convey †of joy and sorrow, life and death †are neither ethereal, nor separate from us.
Since his student years in New York City, Kent had been developing a reputation as one of the leading artists in America. Studying under Robert Henri at the New York School of Art during the first decade of the Twentieth Century, Kent was well-versed in his teacher’s mantra that art and life are inseparable: “…the goal is not making art. It is living a life. Those who live their lives will leave the stuff that is really art.”
Although he made his home base in Vermont, where he conveyed the character of a hardy New Englander, Kent retained strong ties to the New York City art world where, as his friend Carl Zigrosser describes “He often went out with black tie and dinner coat, and moved in New York or at Long Island estates, in the circle of Ralph Pulitzers, the Whitneys, and Gordon Abbott and his wife Katherine.” With patrons and friends among New York City’s monied elite, and innovative business strategies, including his incorporation and work as an illustrator and commercial artist, Kent was able to provide amply for his family of seven.
The Bennington Museum is at 75 Main Street. For more information, www.benningtonmuseum.org or 802-447-1571.
Jamie Franklin is the Curator of Collections at the Bennington Museum.
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