Published: May 22, 2012
Artist, printmaker, writer, explorer and political/social activist Rockwell Kent (1882‱971) could do it all †and did †in the course of a long and adventurous life. During a peripatetic career filled with controversy, Kent’s reputation fluctuated with the times and the dust-ups in which he was involved. Now, four decades after his death, his art can be judged solely on its merits, not his public persona, and it looks very good.
Two exhibitions this summer reflect the continuing interest in Kent’s oeuvre, offering an opportunity to gauge both his legacy as a printmaker and book illustrator, and as painter of the rugged beauty of Maine. “Rockwell Kent †Voyager: An Artist’s Journey in Prints, Drawings and Illustrated Books” is on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through July 29. More than 100 watercolors, lithographs and pen and ink drawings survey Kent’s achievements, 1907‱950s, in travel narratives, book illustrations and advertising images.
“Jamie Wyeth, Rockwell Kent and Monhegan” at the Farnsworth Art Museum through December 20 traces connections between Kent and the youngest of the Wyeth clan of artists, both of whom painted extensively on the picturesque midcoast Maine island. Around ten paintings by each artist underscore their differing responses to Monhegan’s special sights.
Born in Tarrytown, N.Y., Kent gave up studying architecture at Columbia to train as an artist under such eminent teachers as William Merritt Chase, Arthur Wesley Dow, Robert Henri, Kenneth Hayes Miller and Abbott Thayer.
Henri had become an enthusiastic fan of Monhegan after he visited there in 1903 with Pennsylvania Impressionist Edward W. Redfield, who summered in nearby Boothbay Harbor. One mile long by a half-mile wide and 13 miles off the Maine coast, with sheer cliffs, pounding seas, a picturesque harbor and deep forests, Monhegan “is a wonderful place to paint †so much in so small a place one could hardly believe it,” said Henri.
At Henri’s urging, Kent first visited in 1905, the beginning of a 50-year association with Monhegan, with a long hiatus between 1910 and his return in 1947. Kent soon reported to Henri that “this place is more wonderful & beautiful that you told me it was&†It seems to me now that I’d like to paint here always.”
The Farnsworth exhibition, featuring many Kent works owned by Jamie Wyeth, documents the manner in which young Kent utilized a vigorous, realistic style to convey his responses to Monhegan’s granite terrain, dramatic headlands and the surrounding, roiling ocean, most memorably in winter. In his first year he painted the island’s most frequently depicted view †a profile of Blackhead viewed from Whitehead. “Monhegan Headlands” captures shadows and light around Blackhead as it plunges into the ocean.
In addition to Monhegan’s highly picturesque sites, Kent painted views of the tiny village, the nearby islet Manana and the island’s hardworking fishermen.
During the winter of 1907, Kent painted the memorable “Maine Coast,” showing the hilly, forested island under a thick blanket of snow. Also noteworthy are “Harbor, Monhegan,” a view of sharply delineated rocks across an expanse of blue water, and the golden orb of the sun shedding a romantic glow over “Late Afternoon, Monhegan Island.”
Kent’s early Monhegan canvases were critically acclaimed and praised by fellow artists at a gallery show in New York. Ashcan titan John Sloan reacted in his diary to Kent’s “Splendid big thoughts&⁉&ccept them as great.” Art critic James Huneker wrote in the New York Sun that Kent “knocks your socks off&⁷ith these broad, realistic, powerful representations of weltering seas, men laboring in boats, rude rocky headlands and snowbound landscapes.” But the paintings did not sell.
Consistent with his Socialist ideals and to put bread on the table, Kent worked on the island as a handyman, laborer, lobsterman and carpenter. He built a house and studio for himself †both now open for public visits in the summer †and a house for his mother that is now owned by Jamie Wyeth. A brief marriage foundered by 1910, when Kent sold his house and studio, and left for Newfoundland in search of new experiences and fresh subjects to paint.
Thereafter, Kent lived in Connecticut, New York City and the Hudson Valley while traveling to Alaska, Greenland, Newfoundland and Tierra del Fuego, and producing oil paintings, travel books and prints.
Kent’s paintings, reflecting locales he visited, featured crisp, smoothly brushed, evocative landscapes, often populated with generalized figures. Most notable are snow-covered depictions of life in the frozen north and panoramic views of his farm in the Catskills.
Around 1920 Kent took up wood engraving, which became his primary printmaking medium. He gained renown for his emphatic, stylized, black and white works that appeared as illustrations in his own books, in classic texts and in advertisements for myriad products.
Drawn entirely from the extensive holdings of the Philadelphia Museum, “Voyager” begins with early pen and ink/black and white illustrative work, such as the imaginative, whimsical “Youth Torn Between Love and Desire,” 1916, and “The Domino Room,” an illustration for the May 1916 Vanity Fair magazine, featuring society couples swirling on the dance floor of a crowded New York City club.
In the 1920s, Kent’s adventurous odysseys to Alaska, Greenland, Newfoundland and Tierra del Fuego and his subsequent illustrated autobiographical narratives attracted wide public attention. As art historian Richard V. West once observed, the images resulting from his wanderlust “should not be regarded as travelogue ‘snapshots,’ but as evocations of that sense of implacable grandeur and mystery †and often loneliness †which confronts Man in Nature.”
Kent shaped his identity as world traveler, writer and adventurer with illustrations like “Voyaging (Self Portrait of the Artist),” 1924, in which he presented himself as a stalwart traveler resting his pack amid windswept branches and before snowcapped mountains. It recalls Kent after he sailed his boat to Tierra del Fuego and became the first person known to hike from the north over the mountains to Argentina.
In all, Kent contributed to more than 140 books, including Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, all represented in the Philadelphia exhibition.
His greatest success was Moby Dick, published by R.R. Donnelly & Sons Company in 1930, for which he created such images as the foreboding, peg-legged Captain Ahab, the scruffy crew and terrifying confrontations with the Great White Whale. In Kent’s hands, the mighty monster of the sea became a huge, undeniable force of nature overwhelming vulnerable humans in what he called “the most beautiful book ever published in America.”
Kent’s admiration for William Blake and his own distinctive, sleek wood engraving style were bases for images of heroic idealism, such as the questing, thrusting man in “North Wind,” 1918, and the figure levitating in a starry sky over a small sailboat in “Godspeed,” 1931″2, an ad for American Car and Foundry Company. An ad for the United States Pipe and Foundry Company in 1941, “Big Inch,” depicted hardy workers maneuvering a huge pipe onto a flatbed truck.
Several of Kent’s most spectacular images were created in a series of four lithographs to illustrate an article about New York’s Hayden Planetarium in Life magazine in 1941. Called the “End of the World” series, they evoked cataclysmic themes of “Lunar Disintegration,” “Solar Fade-out,” “Solar Flare-up” and “Degravitation.”
Kent’s lifelong dedication to social activism, world peace and other liberal causes expressed itself in works like “Workers of the World Unite!,” 1937, a powerful wood engraving in which a muscular, idealized laborer swings a shovel against what could be pointed bayonets, representing management. Other prints railed against nuclear weapons and American imperialism.
In spite of the controversy some of his images stirred, Kent’s illustrations challenged those by N.C. Wyeth for public popularity. A 1936 survey ranked him as the best known and successful printmaker in America. Nevertheless, as expert collector Carl Zigrosser once observed, “Few artists have experienced such fluctuations in the public estimate of their work as has Kent, from extravagant praise to fanatic denunciation, usually based on non-aesthetic considerations&”
After some 40 years away, Kent returned to Monhegan with his third wife, Sally, for a half-dozen years, starting in the late 1940s. He bought back his house and often painted canvases from places he had worked decades earlier. If his style was somewhat less vigorous than before, the paintings nonetheless conveyed his deep attachment to Monhegan.
By this time Kent was falling into disfavor aesthetically and politically as abstract work came to dominate postwar art, and his radical views provoked harsh anticommunist reactions in the Cold War environment. In 1953, the artist left Monhegan for the last time. He died at his farm in Au Sable Forks, N.Y., in 1971.
The Farnsworth exhibition underscores the connections of three generations of Wyeths, especially Jamie Wyeth (b 1946), to Monhegan. Both grandfather N.C. and father Andrew painted on the island occasionally, but Jamie planted deeper roots, using funds from sales of his first solo exhibition to purchase Kent House, and creating myriad “portraits” of elements and inhabitants of the island.
Jamie noted that he now “could dwell in a house built by a painter who, in my estimation, best understood the sea: Rockwell Kent.” Kent warmly welcomed young Wyeth’s purchase of the house, noting that “somehow” it added “to the deep respect I have for what is now three generations of Wyeth artists.”
While Wyeth’s Monhegan style, subjects and sites have little relation to Kent’s, each artist had what Michael Komanecky, chief curator at Farnsworth Art Museum, calls “a shared sensibility, a willingness to be inspired by Monhegan, and to put his distinctive artistic personality to work in rendering various forms that inspiration has taken.” From the start, Wyeth was drawn to the island’s weathered buildings, lobster traps, marine objects, clamshells and seagulls, often depicted from idiosyncratic perspectives or with a whimsical or ironic twist.
Seagulls continue as favored subjects, in works like “Seagulls of Monhegan Island” and “Jenny Whibley Sings,” in which the glowing house adds context to the screeching, up-close-and-personal gull in the foreground. “Islanders,” with the American flag draped across the weather-beaten house, and “Fog,” with irises juxtaposed against the greenery of land and dark forms of trees, explore familiar Wyeth subjects.
“Battleship,” painted in 2002, suggests that Kent’s world concerns may have rubbed off on Wyeth. It shows an innocent island lad observing a rarely seen US warship pausing in placid water bathed in ethereal light, just off peaceful Monhegan. While not overtly political, it may reflect consternation about the impending American invasion of Iraq and the bloody conflict that followed.
The most unusual work on view, “Sea Watchers,” grew out of a dream in which young Wyeth envisioned his father and grandfather, along with Winslow Homer and Andy Warhol, gathered on Whitehead surveying crashing waves. It is a tribute to artists who contributed to his life and career.
Kent in his decade and Jamie Wyeth in his four decades and counting on magical Monhegan have shared a deep affection for the topography, flora and fauna and hardy people of the island, capturing its singular character. Documentation of these affinities at the Farnsworth, along with the Philadelphia demonstration of Kent’s preeminent printmaking skills, are welcome reminders of the enduring achievements of two fine, perceptive artists.
There is no catalog for the print exhibition. The 64-page, fully illustrated Farnsworth catalog has an informative essay by Komanecky. It sells for $30, softcover.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art is on Benjamin Franklin Parkway at 26th Street. For information, 215-763-8100 or www.philamuseum.org .
The Farnsworth Art Museum is at 16 Museum Street. For information, www.farnsworthmuseum.org or 207-596-6457.
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