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Kent's early paintings of Mount Monadnock and New Hampshire were first shown at the Society of American Artists in New York in 1904, when Dublin Pond was purchased by Smith College. In 1905 Kent ventured to Monhegan Island, Maine, and found its rugged and primordial beauty a source of inspiration for the next five years. His first series of paintings of Monhegan were shown to wide critical acclaim in 1907 at Clausen Galleries in New York. These works form the foundation of his lasting reputation as an early American modernist, and can be seen in museums across the country, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Seattle Art Museum, New Britain Museum of American Art, and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Among those critics lauding Kent was James Huneker of the Sun, who praised Kent's athletic brushwork and daring color dissonances. (It was Huneker who deemed the paintings of The Eight as "decidedly reactionary".) In 1910, Kent helped organize the Exhibition of Independent Artists, and in 1911 together with Arthur B. Davies he organized An Independent Exhibition of the Paintings and Drawings of Twelve Men, referred to as "The Twelve" and "Kent's Tent". Painters Marsden Hartley, John Marin, and Max Weber (but not John Sloan, Robert Henri, or George Bellows) participated in the 1911 exhibition.
A transcendentalist and mystic in the tradition of Thoreau and Emerson, whose works he read, Kent found inspiration in the austerity and stark beauty of wilderness. After Monhegan, he lived for extended periods of time in Winona, Minnesota (1912-1913), Newfoundland (1914-15), Alaska (1918-19), Vermont (1919-1925), Tierra del Fuego (1922-23), Ireland (1926), and Greenland (1929; 1931-32; 1934-35). His series of land and seascapes from these often forbidding locales convey the Symbolist spirit evoking the mysteries and cosmic wonders of the natural world. "I don't want petty self-expression", Kent wrote, "I want the elemental, infinite thing; I want to paint the rhythm of eternity."
Asgaard Farm, Mountain Road, Jay, New York "And there, westward and heavenward, to the high ridge of Whiteface northward to the northern limit of the mountains, southward to their highest peaks, was spread the full half-circle panorama of the Adirondacks. It was as if we had never seen the mountains before." --This Is My Own, Rockwell Kent.
In the late summer of 1918, Kent and his nine-year-old son ventured to the American frontier of Alaska. Wilderness (1920), the first of Kent's several adventure memoirs, is an edited and illustrated compilation of his letters home. The New Statesman (London) described Wilderness as "easily the most remarkable book to come out of America since Leaves of Grass was published." Upon the artist's return to New York in March 1919, publishing scion George Palmer Putnam and others, including Juliana Force--assistant to Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney--incorporated the artist as "Rockwell Kent, Inc." to support him in his new Vermont homestead while he completed his paintings from Alaska for exhibition in 1920 at Knoedler Galleries in New York. Kent's small oil-on-wood-panel sketches from Alaska--uniformly horizontal studies of light and color--were exhibited at Knoedler's as "Impressions." Their artistic lineage to the small and spare oil sketches of James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), which are often entitled "Arrangements," underscores Kent's admiration of Whistler's genius.
Approached in 1926 by publisher R. R. Donnelley to produce an illustrated edition of Richard Henry Dana, Jr.'s Two Years Before the Mast, Kent suggested Moby-Dick instead. Published in 1930 by the Lakeside Press of Chicago, the three-volume limited edition (1,000 copies) filled with Kent's haunting black-and-white pen/brush and ink drawings sold out immediately; Random House also produced a trade edition.
Less well known are Kent's talents as a jazz age humorist. As the pen-and-ink draftsman "Hogarth, Jr.", Kent created several whimsical and irreverent drawings published by Vanity Fair, New York Tribune, Harper's Weekly, and the original Life. He brought his Hogarth, Jr., style to a series of richly colored reverse paintings on glass that he completed in 1918 and exhibited at Wanamaker's Department Store. (Two of these glass paintings are in the collection of the Columbus Museum of Art, part of the bequest of modernist collector Ferdinand Howald.) Further decorative work ensued intermittently: in 1939, Vernon Kilns reproduced three series of designs drawn by Kent (Moby Dick, Salamina, Our America) on its sets of contemporary china dinnerware. His pen, brush, and ink drawings were reproduced on the covers of the pulp magazineAdventure in 1927, leading Time magazine to say that "if it were distinguished for nothing else, Adventure would stand apart from rival 'pulps'.... because it was once entirely illustrated by Rockwell Kent...."
Raymond Moore, founder and impresario of the Cape Playhouse and Cinema in Dennis, Massachusetts, contracted with Rockwell Kent for the design of murals for the cinema, but the work of transferring and painting the designs on the 6,400-square-foot (590 m2) span was done by Kent's collaborator Jo Mielziner (1901-1976) and a crew of stage set painters from New York City. Ostensibly staying away from the state of Massachusetts to protest the Sacco and Vanzetti executions of 1927, Kent did in fact venture to Dennis in June 1930 to spend three days on the scaffolding, making suggestions and corrections. The signatures of both Kent and Mielziner appear on opposite walls of the cinema.
As World War II approached, Kent shifted his priorities, becoming increasingly active in progressive politics. In 1937, the Section of Painting and Sculpture of the U.S. Treasury commissioned Kent, along with nine other artists, to paint two murals in the New Post Office building at the Federal Triangle in Washington, DC; the two murals are named "Mail Service in the Arctic" and "Mail Service in the Tropics" to celebrate the reach of domestic airborne postal service. Kent included (in an Alaska Native language and in tiny letters) a polemical statement in the painting, apparently a message from the indigenous people of Alaska to the Puerto Ricans, in support of decolonization. As translated, the communication read "To the peoples of Puerto Rico, our friends: Go ahead, let us change chiefs. That alone can make us equal and free". The incident caused some consternation.
Kent's patriotism never waned in spite of his often critical views of American foreign policy. He remained America's premier draftsman of the sea, and during World War II he produced a series of pen/brush and ink maritime drawings for American Export Lines and began another series of pen/brush and ink drawings for Rahr Malting Company which he completed in 1946. The drawings were reproduced in To Thee!, a book Kent also wrote and designed celebrating American freedom and democracy and the important role immigrants play in constructing American national identity. In 1948 Kent was elected to the National Academy of Design as an Associate member, and in 1966 he became a full Academician. However, the political changes of the Cold War and the rise of abstract expressionism cast shadows over his art and representational painting in general.
Kent's political activism came to the fore in the 1930s, when he took part in several initiatives of the cultural popular front, including support for the Spanish Republic and the subsequent war against fascism. Most notably, he participated in the American Artists' Congress at the time of its formation in 1936 and later served as an officer of the Artists' Union of America and then the Artists' League of America in their efforts to represent artists to boards, museums and dealers. In 1948 he stood for Congress as an American Labor Party candidate supporting Henry Wallace's Progressive Party presidential campaign as the best option for extending the legacy of the New Deal.
In the changing postwar context, Kent advocated nuclear disarmament and continued friendship with America's wartime ally, the Soviet Union. This placed him on the wrong side of American Cold War policies. Along with hundreds of other prominent intellectuals and creative artists in America, he became a target of those in league with Joseph McCarthy. Kent was not a Communist and considered his political views to be in the best traditions of American democracy. However, his participation in the Stockholm Appeal and the World Peace Council led to the suspension of his passport in 1950. After he filed suit to regain his foreign-travel rights, in June 1958 the U.S. Supreme Court in Kent v. Dulles affirmed his right to travel by declaring the ban a violation of his civil rights. Meanwhile, Kent also came under attack as an officer of the International Workers Order, a mutual benefit and cultural society supported by leftists and immigrants. In 1951 Kent defended his record in court proceedings and exposed the perjured testimony that claimed he was a Communist.
From 1957 to 1971 Kent was president of the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship. After a well-received exhibition of his work in Moscow at the Pushkin Museum in 1957-58, he donated several hundred of his paintings and drawings to the Soviet peoples in 1960. He subsequently became an honorary member of the Soviet Academy of Fine Arts and in 1967 the recipient of the International Lenin Peace Prize. Kent specified that his prize money be given to the women and children of Vietnam, both North and South. (The nature of Kent's gift is clarified by his wife Sally in the 2005 documentary Rockwell Kent, produced and written by Fred Lewis.)
When Kent died of a heart attack in 1971, The New York Times described him as "... a thoughtful, troublesome, profoundly independent, odd and kind man who made an imperishable contribution to the art of bookmaking in the United States." Retrospectives of the artist's paintings and drawings have been mounted, most recently by The Rooms in St. John's, Newfoundland, where the exhibition Pointed North: Rockwell Kent in Newfoundland and Labrador was curated by Caroline Stone in the summer of 2014. Other exhibitions include the Richard F. Brush Art Gallery and Owen D. Young Library at St. Lawrence University (Canton, New York) in the autumn of 2012; the Farnsworth Art Museum (Rockland, Maine) during the spring through autumn of 2012; the Bennington Museum in Vermont during the summer of 2012; and the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the spring through summer of 2012. An exhibition marking the centennial of Kent's time in Winona, Minnesota, took place there in 2013. Kent's pen-and-ink drawings from Moby Dick appear on a U.S. postage stamp issued as part of the 2001 commemorative panel celebrating such American illustrators as Maxfield Parrish, Frederic Remington, and Norman Rockwell.
The year he spent in Newfoundland in 1914-1915 is fictionally recalled by Canadian writer Michael Winter in The Big Why, his 2004 Winterset Award-winning novel. Kent's work also figures in Steve Martin's 2010 novel An Object of Beauty and is the subject of a chapter in Douglas Brinkley's 2011 history The Quiet World: Saving Alaska's Wilderness Kingdom: 1879-1960.
2018 through 2020 is the 100th anniversary of Kent's visit to Alaska, his stay on Fox Island and the publication of Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska. The letters he wrote and received during that time reveal a less than quiet experience beneath his book's narrative. The correspondence with his wife, Kathleen, and his letters to Hildegarde Hirsch, his lover of that time, are especially interesting. A more detailed story can be found at the blog Rockwell Kent "Wilderness" Centennial Journal..
Kent was a prolific writer whose adventure memoirs and autobiographies include:
Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska -- Memoir of the fall and winter of 1918/19 painting and exploring with his eldest son on Fox Island in Resurrection Bay, Alaska (1920) [filled with the artist's pen/brush and ink drawings];
Voyaging Southwards from the Strait of Magellan - Memoir of 1922-23 travels in and around Tierra del Fuego (1924) [filled with the artist's pen/brush and ink drawings];
N by E -- Memoir of the summer 1929 voyage to (and shipwreck on the rocks of) Greenland (1930) [filled with the artist's pen/brush and ink drawings as well as several wood engravings];
Rockwellkentiana - Few words and many pictures by Rockwell Kent and Carl Zigrosser, A bibliography and list of prints, Harcourt, Brace & Co. (1933);
Salamina - Memoir of his first Arctic winter (1931-32) painting and exploring while based in the tiny settlement of Illorsuit, Greenland (1935) [filled with the artist's pen/brush and ink drawings as well as several conte crayon portrait drawings];
This is My Own - autobiography, focusing on the years 1928-1939 in Au Sable Forks, Adirondacks (1940) [filled with the artist's pen/brush and ink drawings];
It's Me, O Lord - full-scale autobiography (1955);
Of Men and Mountains Ausable Forks: Asgaard Press, 1959, printed by the press of A. Colish, Mount Vernon, NY;
Greenland Journal - the author's original diaries from Igdlorssuit, Greenland, 1962, New York, Ivan Obolensky [filled with the artist's pen/brush and ink drawings];
After Long Years Ausable Forks: Asgaard Press, 1968, printed by the press of A. Colish, Mount Vernon, edn. of 250 copies, signed by the author.
Illustrated by Rockwell Kent
The Seven Ages of Man, portfolio of 4 linecut reproductions after pen/brush and ink drawings, each signed and mounted, contained in paper cartridge wrappers with an illustrated cover label dated 1918, limited to 100 numbered copies;
^It's Me O Lord: The Autobiography of Rockwell Kent (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1955), pp.501-2.
^Current Biography 1942, p.447-49; The mural depicts a mailman delivering letters to Puerto Ricans, and the message was written on one of the letters (from Alaska). For the record, the statement was "Puerto-Ricomiunun ilapticnum! Ke ha chimmeulakut engayscaacut. Amna ketchimmi attunim chiuli waptictun itticleoraatigut!" Though the press coverage generated alarm as well as amusement, the mural could not be altered until after Kent was issued a government check for his $3,000 fee, after which that part of the mural was painted over.
Jones, Jamie L., "Print Nostalgia: Skeuomorphism and Rockwell Kent's Woodblock Style," American Art 31, no. 3 (Fall 2017).
Wien, Jake Milgram, "Genius Loci: Rockwell Kent's Lobster Cove (Ireland)," in Homann, Joachim, ed., Why Draw? 500 Years of Drawings and Watercolors at Bowdoin College (New York: Prestel, 2017).
Bailey, Julia Tatiana, "The National Council of American-Soviet Friendship and Art in the Shadow of the Cold War," Archives of American Art Journal 56, no. 1 (Spring 2017).
Ferris, Scott R., "In Review: Mr. Kent Goes to Washington (Again): A Gift to the American People." A history on the gift of Rockwell Kent's painting, 'Citadel," to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.
Brock, Charles, "The Exhibition Game: Rockwell Kent and The Twelve," in The World of William Glackens, Vol. II, The C. Richard Hilker Art Lectures & New Perspectives on William Glackens (New York: ARTBOOK/D.A.P., 2017).
Ferris, Scott R., "In Review: Frozen Falls (Alaska)/Ice Curtains." Review of the oil painting, Frozen Falls, by Rockwell Kent: its history and sale at Christie's in November, 2016. March, 2017 online posting.
Ferris, Scott R., "In Review: Gray Day." Review of the oil painting, Gray Day, by Rockwell Kent: its history and sale at Sotheby's in November, 2016. January, 2017 online posting.
Ferris, Scott R., "In Review: Blue Day." Review of the oil painting, 'Blue Day,' by Rockwell Kent: its history and sale. 2017.
Rockwell Kent: The Mythic and the Modern (illustrated chronology on pp. 162-68), Wien, 2005 (see Further reading, below)
Rightmire, Robert, "Valentines From Rockwell Kent", Valentine Writer, Vol. 40, No. 2, Summer 2016, pp. 2-5.
Wien, Jake Milgram, "Rockwell Kent and Edward Hopper: Looking Out, Looking Within," The Magazine ANTIQUES, January/February 2016.
Rightmire, Robert, Postmarked Art, The Postcards of Rockwell Kent, 1920s-1960s, Blurb.com, 2015
Ferris, Scott R., "In Review: Rockwell Kent in Newfoundland." A review of the exhibition and catalogue, "Vital Passage: The Newfoundland Epic of Rockwell Kent." The Rooms, St. John's, Newfoundland, 2014.
Wien, Jake Milgram, Vital Passage: The Newfoundland Epic of Rockwell Kent, including a Catalogue Raisonne of Kent's Newfoundland Works. The Rooms, St. John's, Newfoundland, 2014.
Rightmire, Robert, The Greeting Cards of Rockwell Kent. Picturia Press, Portland, ME, 2013.
Ferris, Scott R., Rockwell Kent: The Once Most Popular American Artist. St. Lawrence University, Canton, NY. Autumn 2012.
Ferris, Scott R., "In Review: The Other Rockwell Kents: An Introduction." 2018.
Franklin, Jamie, "Rockwell Kent's 'Egypt': Shadow and Light in Vermont." Antiques & Fine Art (cover story), Summer 2012.
Franklin, Jamie and Jake Milgram Wien, Rockwell Kent's 'Egypt': Shadow and Light in Vermont. Bennington Museum, Vermont, 2012.
Komanecky, Michael, Jamie Wyeth, Rockwell Kent and Monhegan. Farnsworth Art Museum, Rockland, ME, 2012.
O'Hara, Virginia, Intrepid and Inventive: Illustrations by Rockwell Kent, Brandywine River Museum, DE, 2009.
Rightmire, Robert, A Descriptive List of the Greeting Card Art of Rockwell Kent, The Kent Collector, Vol. XXXIII, No. 1, Spring 2007 through current issue, a 15-part series.
Wien, Jake Milgram, Rockwell Kent: Visionary Works from Greenland. Lighthouse Center for the Arts, Tequesta, Florida, March 3 - April 30, 2008 (color brochure with essay).
Ferris, Scott R., "The Evolving Legacy of Rockwell Kent," FineArtConnoisseur, January-February 2008.
Rightmire, Robert, " A Newly Discovered Rockwell Kent Porfolio" (The PON portfolio), The Kent Collector, Vol. XXX, No. 2, Summer, 2006, pp. 15-17
Wien, Jake Milgram, "The Archetypal Landscapes of Rockwell Kent." Antiques & Fine Art, Late Summer 2005.
Rightmire, Robert "Every American An Art Patron," The Kent Collector, Vol. XXIX, No. 3, Fall/Winter, 2003, pp. 13-18.
Ferris, Scott R., "In Review: Rockwell Kent: The Mythic and the Modern." Review of the exhibition and catalog, Rockwell Kent: The Mythic and the Modern, 2005.
Wien, Jake Milgram, Rockwell Kent: The Mythic and the Modern. Hudson Hills Press in association with the Portland (Maine) Museum of Art, 2005.
Wien, Jake Milgram, "Rockwell Kent's Reverse Paintings on Glass," The Magazine ANTIQUES (cover story), July 2005.
Wien, Jake Milgram, "Rockwell Kent's Canterbury Pilgrims" in Chaucer Illustrated: Five Hundred Years of The Canterbury Tales in Pictures, Oak Knoll Press and British Library, 2003.
Ferris, Scott R., "In Review: The Prints of Rockwell Kent: A Catalogue Raisonné." Review of the 2002 revised edition of The Prints of Rockwell Kent: A Catalogue Raisonne, by Robert Rightmire.
Roberts, Don. Rockwell Kent: The Art of the Bookplate. San Francisco: Fair Oaks Press, 2003
Ferris, Scott R., "In the Presence of Light," included as foreword to new edition of Salamina, Wesleyan University Press, 2003.
Rightmire, Robert, Dan Burne Jones, The Prints of Rockwell Kent, revised edition, Alan Wolfsy Fine Arts, 2002
Wien, Jake Milgram, "Rockwell Kent and Hollywood," Archives of American Art Journal 42:3-4 (2002).
Ferris, Scott R., "The Artistic Heritage of Rockwell Kent," American Art Review, October 2002.
Rightmire, Robert, "Rockwell Kent's Author's Edition," The Kent Collector, Vol. XXVIII, No. 2, Summer 2002, pp. 14-15