Published: May 8, 2001
By Stephen May
CHICAGO, ILL. – A born individualist and master of many forms of art, Rockwell Kent led a busy, peripatetic, and productive life. His combative views on political and social issues of the day often got him into trouble and overshadowed his artistic achievements, but today he is recognized as one of the finest realists of Twentieth Century American art.
At various times in his long life Kent (1882-1971) was a painter, illustrator, printmaker, architectural draftsman, lobsterman, carpenter, seaman, farmer, and advocate for progressive causes. The diversity of his talents and the controversies that surrounded his political activism tended to obscure appreciation for the quality of his artwork in his lifetime. In particular, Kent’s outspoken admiration for the Soviet Union, repeatedly expressed at the height of the Cold War, stirred much hostility and damaged his standing.
As the Cold War recedes into history, several recent Kent exhibitions have renewed admiration for the clear modernist aesthetic of his landscapes and for the perception and clarity of his graphic images. Several books published in the last few years have provided insights into the artist’s complex personality and the quality of his oeuvre.
“Distant Shores: ,” organized by The Norman Rockwell Museum at Stockbridge, where it opened, and later seen at the Appleton Museum of Florida State University, will be on view at the Terra Museum of American Art through May 20, before concluding its tour at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art, June 17 to September 23.
Guest curated by Constance Martin, research associate at the Arctic Institute of North America at the University of Calgary in Alberta, this exhibition of more than 90 paintings, drawings, and prints features art inspired by Kent’s frequent sojourns in remote areas of the world. The exhibition catalogue, written by Martin with essays by Richard V. West, director of the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, is insightful and beautifully illustrated.
Two complementary shows, on view last year, added to the public’s opportunities to rediscover Kent. “The View from Asgaard: Rockwell Kent’s Adirondack Legacy,” showcasing works of the landscape around the painter’s home near Au Sable Forks, N.Y., was mounted and seen at the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake, N.Y. Another exhibition at the Plattsburgh State Art Museum, which houses a large permanent collection of Kent’s work, offered yet another glimpse into the artist’s output.
Among other things, these shows documented Kent’s extended sojourns in Maine, Newfoundland, Alaska, Tierra del Fuego, and Greenland. As art historian Alan Wallach has observed, “Life in such forbidding settings sustained and intensified his original vision of a relentless, unforgiving nature.”
Even in those remote areas and especially at his final home in the Adirondacks, Kent’s stark, evocative style underscored his affinity for each place. His crisp, modernist paintings and austere, expressive graphic works reflect both his superb artistic gifts and his grasp of the essentials of each setting.
Born into an affluent clan in Tarrytown, N.Y., Kent’s father died when he was young, leaving the family in a state of “genteel poverty.” (Other distinguished American artists born in that vintage year of 1882 included painters George Bellows, Arthur B. Carles, Edward Hopper, and N.C. Wyeth, and sculptors Gaston Lachaise and Elie Nadelman.)
Kent developed artistic interests early, first at the Horace Mann School in New York and then at Columbia University, where he honed his draftsman’s skills in architectural studies. After studying painting with the celebrated William Merritt Chase at Shinnecock Hills on Long Island, Kent dropped out of college to pursue a career in art. Along with Bellows and Hopper, he studied with realist Robert Henri at the New York School of Art, absorbing their charismatic teacher’s admonition to find inspiration in the world around them.
Working with landscape painter Abbott Handerson Thayer in Dublin, N.H., in 1903, Kent learned from his eccentric mentor the value of living close to nature and the virtues of Spartan living in cold climates. In 1908 Kent married Thayer’s niece, Kathleen Whiting, the first of his three wives.
In 1905 Henri introduced Kent, as he did Bellows, Hopper, and other ambitious painters, to the awesome scenery and rugged beauty of Monhegan Island. Located a few miles off mid-coast Maine, it became a summer mecca for painters from around the country.
Unlike most artists, Kent lived on the island all year ’round for several years, permitting him to depict the isolated setting in all its frigid, snowy glory. As he developed his art, he worked as a handyman, lobsterman, and carpenter to make ends meet.
Inspired by the island’s precipitous cliffs, pounding surf, and forested landscape, Kent produced some of the most compelling canvases of his career. In “Toilers of the Sea” (1907), one of the great American seascapes, he underscored the hard life of Monhegan fishermen as two men in each of two boats haul in their catch while being buffeted by waves against the dramatic backdrop of the island’s towering cliffs. This painting is a treasured possession of the New Britain Museum of American Art.
The dark wooden shacks at the water’s edge, contrasted with the blue-shadowed, snow covered landscape, convey the frozen stillness of the place in “Winter, Monhegan Island” (1907). This beauty is in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It epitomizes the observation of estimable art historian Lloyd Goodrich that Kent’s “early Monhegan paintings, with their uncompromising clarity, their concentration on the stark forms of the island, and their romantic delight in great expanses of sea, cold northern sky, and brilliant light, were among his most moving works.”
The stark, frieze-like arrangement of figures saying farewell to Monhegan fishermen setting off to work in “Down to the Sea” (1910) suggested the poignancy of the moment and the perils that might lie ahead. Kent utilized a similar composition for a funeral procession for one who died at sea in “Burial of a Young Man” (circa 1908-11). Set in barren island locations and peopled by somewhat ethereal figures reminiscent of the dreamscapes of Arthur B. Davies, these paintings capture the emotions and potential tragedies for all linked to men who go down to the sea in ships.
Kent left Monhegan amidst controversy and did not return for many years. His wanderlust soon led to even more bleak sites.
Kent’s study of architecture and draftsman’s talents fitted him well for graphic art. He never wanted this work to compete with his career as a painter, but it provided needed income for much of his life. Before World War I he began contributing drawings to such fashionable magazines as Harper’s, Puck, and Vanity Fair.
In 1914, Kent took his wife and three young children to Newfoundland, hoping to find an Arcadian way of life and launch an art school. Ensconced in a little fishing village, the artist reveled in proximity to the sea and the area’s unspoiled nature.
Kent’s feisty personality, socialistic views and open admiration for German culture aroused animosity among local residents, who suspected he was a German spy. With anti-German sentiment growing as World War I approached, Kent invited further enmity by posting a sign on his studio door, already decorated with a German eagle, that read “Bomb Shop, Wireless Plant, Chart Room.” Before long the family was ordered to leave Newfoundland.
Frustrated by a long spell of inclement weather and his dust-ups with the locals, Kent produced subdued, almost melancholy paintings of his brief stay. His affinity for the visionary art of William Blake is suggested by a dreamscape, “Pastoral” (1914), in which a softly rounded human figure and three lambs are posed against a rich green landscape and deep blue sea.
Kent’s exposure to the rigors of Monhegan and Newfoundland whetted his appetite for the grand austerities and solitude of the frozen north. In 1918 he took his nine-year-old son with him to tiny Fox Island in Resurrection Bay, south of Seward, Alaska. For nearly a year they lived a Spartan existence in an abandoned cabin, using wood for warmth and goats for milk.
In this remote setting the Kents were confronted with intense northern cold – and the artist found challenging new scenery to paint. “It is a fine life,” he wrote in a letter, “and more and more I realize that for me such isolation as this… is the only right life for me.”
Canvases like “Frozen Falls, Alaska” (1919) convey his awe at the snow-covered expansiveness of the area. In a somewhat surreal image, “Voyagers, Alaska” (1919-23), three nude seamen look across an expanse of cold, blue water toward a ghostly sailing vessel framed by snow-capped peaks. An idealized guardian angel floats overhead. “The angel is perhaps sustaining the faith of the explorers as they dream of discovering a distant shore,” says Martin.
In a similarly dream-like image, “Night Wind” (1919), an angelic nude form soars over icy seas and snowy glaciers. “The Alaska paintings,” observes Martin, “…reflect Kent’s continuing search for a personal spiritual vocabulary.”
At the suggestion of print expert Carl Zigrosser, Kent created a series of wood carvings to illustrate a narrative of his sojourn, Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska (1920). Publication of the book and an exhibition of his paintings at the prestigious Knoedler Gallery in Manhattan established Kent as a prominent American artist.
After settling with his family for a while in Connecticut and New York, the restless artist decided on impulse to take a freighter to Tierra del Fuego, attracted by its famously foul weather and the difficulty of getting there.
On that bleak archipelago off the southern tip of South America, he and a seaman he had met on the voyage down undertook an extraordinary trek on foot through the mountains to Ushuaia, the southernmost town in the world. They were, according to Martin, “Possibly the first white men to accomplish this feat,” and as a result, at the end the natives “greeted them like celebrities.”
In his hand-colored woodcut commemorating this feat, “Voyaging (Self-Portrait and The Wayfarer)” (1924), Kent depicted himself as a sturdy, heroic figure, backed by trees and snow-capped mountains. This image helped illustrate his book-length narrative of his Tierra del Fuego adventures, Voyaging: Southward from the Strait of Magellan (1924).
Kent’s appreciation for the rivers, lakes, and mountainous terrain of the region was reflected in several stark, simplified paintings, such as “Azapardo River” (1922) and “Mountain Lake – Tierra del Fuego” (circa 1923), which seem more tranquil than the actual scenes Kent must have observed. Both were acquired by his great admirer, collector and museum founder Duncan Phillips. They are now among the dozen Kent works in the grand Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.
The artist’s travels and extended absences heightened tensions within his marriage. In 1925 Kent was divorced by Kathleen. The following year Frances Lee became his second wife.
To support his large, extended family Kent took on various commercial assignments, most famously pen-and-ink illustrations for an edition of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, published by R.R. Donnelley and Sons Company in 1930. In creating the most important illustrations of his career, the artist drew on his own adventures at sea and his mature skills as a draftsman to elaborate on his take on nature and man’s destiny in the context of Melville’s epic tale.
Applying both high skill and fastidious technique to this task, Kent produced some of the finest wood engravings ever done by an American. Influenced by Blake’s transcendental visions and artfully balancing realism and symbolism, he created strong images that enhanced Melville’s gripping text. In a typically powerful illustration, “Moby Dick Rises,” the great white whale explodes above the surface of the water, exuding menacing force.
As West points out in a catalogue essay, “In his hands, wood engraving took on a modern sleek appearance, with solid black shapes and beautifully supple white lines.” Kent’s work in this medium, gracing innumerable books, is immediately recognizable to this day.
His more than 270 compelling illustrations helped make Moby-Dick a great success, doing much to restore Melville’s reputation and placing the artist in the forefront of American illustrators.
In 1927 Kent purchased a 200-acre farm just outside the village of Au Sable Forks, N.Y. It became his home for the rest of his life. In a verdant meadow, ringed by the distant Adirondacks mountains, Kent built a comfortable house and large white barns. He called the place “Asgaard,” after the Norse word for “home of the gods.”
“Facing westwards we look from a window across a sea of treetops to lofty, solitary Mt. Whiteface ten miles away,” Kent wrote of Asgaard. “[S]o far removed are the house and its immediate surroundings from any traveled road or neighboring farm that one feels the whole estate to be a world unto itself.”
Kent eventually established a thriving dairy business, and depicted the picturesque setting, in all seasons, in a series of striking paintings. Indeed from the 1940s on Kent’s paintings focused on evocative views of his beloved Adirondacks farm and the magnificent scenery of that lovely area of upstate New York. He depicted the farm and the surrounding countryside, which remain relatively unchanged today, in precise, affectionate images featuring picturesque buildings and unspoiled nature. They made for a beautiful exhibition last year at the Adirondack Museum.
In 1929 Kent made the first of three visits to Greenland, a place he came to love. On his first trip he crewed on a small boat, barely surviving a shipwreck and an arduous three-day walk on foot over difficult terrain to reach rescuers. For a time he settled in a small village, soaking up the native atmosphere and making many friends. Out of this experience came paintings and his third illustrated book N by E (1930).
Kent returned in 1931-32 and 1934-35, living among the natives, creating art and gathering material for more books. His exposure to the Intuits and their way of life intensified his appreciation for the overpowering forces of nature and the glory of the optical effects of polar light.
“Those Arctic nights: how wonderful they were! The frozen sea, the land, the mountain-sides and peaks all white and gleaming in the moonlight or the light of stars and the aurora,” he wrote in his autobiography, It’s Me O Lord (1955).
That awe and Kent’s empathy for the land and its people animated his many canvases of panoramic, wintry landscapes and depictions of natives. The silent white majesty of the arctic terrain – mountains, cliffs, and glaciers – dominate the Greenland landscapes. The sense of nature’s immensity and man’s insignificant place in it is palpable. As Kent biographer Fridolf Johnson once wrote, “Perhaps no other American artist before him so graphically expressed the sense of remoteness and awesome splendor of the Arctic.”
In “Greenland People, Dogs and Mountains” (1932-35), the peaks looming in the background, beautifully reflected in the blue-green water, dwarf the figures in the woman’s boat (umiak) in the foreground. A sense of industry and silence pervades the scene in the boat as the sturdy women bend to their tasks, seemingly oblivious of the glorious setting of their labors.
Kent’s portrayals of members of his adopted Greenland community – young and old, at work and leisure, courting and hunting – reflect his close observation of the life around him. They range from the chubby, sleeping child in a watercolor, “Helena” (circa 1932), to “Greenland Hunter (The Kayaker)” (1933), a lithograph in which a muscular man walks across frozen terrain toting the simple tools of his trade.
Kent’s favorite subject was his loyal housekeeper/mistress Salamina, who joined him in the small, one-room house he built himself. They entertained frequently and were invited to local homes. In one particularly lovely watercolor, “Gutip Sernigiliet Kalatdlit (God Bless the Greenlanders)” (1932), he depicted her as a colorfully garbed angelic figure gracefully ascending to the heavens. Salamina appeared in numerous paintings and in drawings and poetic descriptions in the book that bears her name, published in 1935.
Kent continued to paint Greenland’s beautiful, stark landscape and its hardy people until his death. It “was for Kent an island of magic,” concludes Martin. Kent’s artwork, documenting a culture now largely lost to advancing civilization, represents the largest body of work in his oeuvre.
In spite of his extended absences from the art world for sojourns in the north, Kent maintained a position of prominence on the American art scene. An astute publicist about his overseas wanderings, he kept himself in the public eye through books and illustrations chronicling his adventures.
His celebrity helped attract a steady stream of well-paying commercial work. With a wife and ex-wife, a stepson and five children to support, as well as a farm to operate, he approached these assignments with characteristic vigor and skill. The advertisements, book designs, and illustrations he created in the 1930s were plentiful and widely admired. Bread-and-butter assignments ranged from ads for automobiles, light bulbs, and paints to illustrations for Beowulf, Paul Bunyan and The Canterbury Tales.
His lithographs and posters regularly reflected his strong views on social and political issues. They often featured depictions of heroic workers and laborers and common men and women as victims of a greedy capitalist system.
As a young man, Kent embraced socialism, to which belief he remained faithful throughout his long life. He joined picket lines, protested injustices at home and abroad, and was active in numerous organizations on the American Left.
Divorced by his second wife, Frances, in 1940, Kent shortly thereafter married Shirley (Sally) Johnstone. At 26, she was over three decades his junior. As West observes, Sally “provided him with the youthful vigor and support he needed… to face the vicissitudes of the coming decades.”
Stormy times did indeed lie ahead. From 1940 on Kent was increasingly vocal in his support for the Soviet Union and his opposition to American foreign policy. In 1948 he conducted a clearly hopeless campaign for Congress on the American Labor Party ticket. He was often accused of being a Communist.
As the Cold War heated up, the artist was called before Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. During a heated exchange with the pugnacious anti-Communist Senator from Wisconsin, Kent took the Fifth Amendment when asked whether he was or ever had been a member of the Communist Party. Outside the hearing room Kent denied that he was a party member, but his unconventional views cost him many friends and admirers, and he was shunned by the art and museum establishments.
Undaunted, he continued to pursue left-wing activities with fervor and panache. Denied a passport, Kent carried an appeal all the way to the Supreme Court, which in effect ruled, after eight years of litigation, that his right to travel abroad should be confirmed and his passport restored.
Kent’s strident political opinions and his starkly realistic art generated great admiration in the Soviet Union, where a major exhibition of his work drew enthusiastic crowds in the late 1950s. In 1960, angered by his continued rejection at home, he gave a large collection of his paintings and many works on paper “to the people of the Soviet Union.” Distributed to major museums in Russia and Armenia, they continue to be displayed there to this day. A few have returned for exhibition in this country since the end of the Cold War. The bulk of what became known as “The Great Kent Collection,” including 80 superb paintings, have unfortunately been lost forever for viewing by most Americans.
In 1969, Kent’s property in the Adirondacks was struck by lightning. The house and much artwork were destroyed by fire. The artist made plans to build a new house, but suffered a stroke and died in 1971. He was nearly 89 years old.
Kent’s death was front-page news in The New York Times, but much of the obituary was devoted to his political involvements rather than his art achievements. Clearly, his multi-faceted gifts as writer, illustrator, graphic designer, and painter – and his flamboyant leftist views – hindered proper evaluation of his oeuvre during and immediately after his life.
Three decades after his death, with the distractions surrounding his career removed, it is possible to recognize that his paintings and graphic work deserve to be ranked among the finest achievements in American art of the last century. Kent’s clear, starkly modernist evocations of the landscapes of Maine and the Adirondacks and the northern climes he visited hold up well, placing him among the best American realists of the Twentieth Century.
Distant Shores: , the title of the fine catalogue accompanying the Terra exhibition, contains a useful text by curator Martin and essays by West. The 128-page book, lavishly illustrated, was published by the University of California Press in association with the Norman Rockwell Museum. It will be a welcome addition to the libraries of Kent’s numerous fans.
Also treasured by Kent aficionados will be the 76-page, illustrated catalogue published in connection with last year’s show at the Adirondack Museum. The View from Asgaard: Rockwell Kent’s Adirondack Legacy, with essays by the museum’s chief curator, Caroline M. Welsh, and Kent authority Scott R. Ferris, was published by the Adirondack Museum.
Ferris also co-authored, with Ellen Pearce, Rockwell Kent’s Forgotten Landscapes, which chronicles and illustrates paintings Kent gave to the Soviet Union. Published in 1998 by Down East Books of Camden, Me., the 97-page book makes for interesting reading and contains many color reproductions.
The Terra Museum of American Art is at 664 North Michigan Avenue. For information, 312-654-2255.
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