Specialist in the artwork of Rockwell Kent (1882-1971)
 
Essays on Rockwell Kent
The following is an excerpt from the book Rockwell Kent's Forgotten Landscapes, by Scott R. Ferris & Ellen Pearce. The essay, entitled Bestowal, is by Scott R. Ferris. For the full essay please visit your online or local book retailer for a copy of the book.


THE BESTOWAL


All my life I have been provoked by the habit of our press bestowing upon rich art collectors ... the title of 'art patron'... their accomplishment in the patronage of art consisting ... of isolating them from all public gaze by hanging them on the walls of their own exclusive residences, to be looked at. .. by probably no more than a selected few... And art belongs to people, and those who love it most have the first title to its custody.
—Rockwell Kent to Dan Burne Jones, 27 April 1960


Throughout the 1940s and 1950s Rockwell Kent had shared frequent correspondence with artists, the general public, and government officials of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. This correspondence was casual and more friendly than political, but it did establish a relationship that served to guide Kent in the disposal of his personal collection of his own artwork. He finally chose the Soviet Union as a recipient for these holdings, a decision that, as Ellen Pearce has brought to light in her essay, reflected Kent's personality much as it did his belief in humanistic philosophy and his desire to have his artwork appreciated.

Kent admired the Soviet Union's policy of state-supported arts and advocated the federally funded arts programs of the 1930s and 1940s in the United States. But by the 1950s his aspirations for this type of support had been all but completely frustrated. He said, "...the concept of people's art has not only not been entertained but discouraged, even scoffed at, by the arbiters of culture and the whole branch—the dealers, critics, galleries and showmen—into whose hands the destiny of American art has fallen."1 Kent had been a frequent exhibitor in museum and gallery shows throughout his career, often at his own expense, and he came to feel that "[his] role, like that of American artists in general, [had] been that of an unpaid public entertainer. " As a consequence of decreased sales of his artwork and what he believed to be "political prejudice" and "vagaries of fashion," his pictures were "overflowing" his storage capacity.2

Kent also believed that the world owed the Soviets a debt of gratitude for stopping Fascism's eastern expansion at Stalingrad during World War II, which further encouraged him to look favorably towards the Soviet Union. If Kent needed more persuasion he found it in the response he received from the Soviet people who saw his traveling exhibition, Exhibition of the Work of Rockwell Kent, Paintings and Graphics (1957-1958). "The simple fact is this: that in the course of one short year in the Soviet Union, many times more people have seen and loved my work than in the whole of my long life in America. That is of itself enough. My pictures are for them."3

An exhibition of the new acquisitions and a celebration in Kent's honor took place at the USSR Academy of Fine Arts in Moscow on 16 November 1960.4 Grandiose speeches were made and innumerable toasts raised. Kent is quoted in the New York Times as saying, "I can only hope that the American people, who have often shown their liking for my work as a painter, realizing that their access to it is hindered by institutional and governmental control, will understand the compelling motives of my gift."5 In a telegram read at the ceremonies, Soviet Chairman Nikita Khrushchev said, "The motives which guided you have our earnest and deepest respect. They are understandable and close to the hearts of the Soviet people... I am firmly convinced that these motives will be correctly understood by the American people, too, for your gift is a step on the way to greater understanding and friendship between the people of the USSR and the USA."6

The importance of the earlier 1957-1958 traveling exhibition in persuading Kent to give his collection to the Soviets cannot be overstated. Fifty-five paintings—including fifteen canvases borrowed from private and public collections—and approximately 163 "black and whites" (graphics) were displayed at the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, the State Hermitage Museum, Kiev Museum of Western and Eastern Art, Odessa Museum of Western and Eastern Art, and the State Museum of Fine Arts, Riga, all within twelve months.7 By the end of the tour well over a half million people had seen Kent's artwork. Meanwhile, Kent had been denied a passport by the U.S. State Department to attend a 75th birthday celebration in his honor in Moscow, but on 16 June 1958 the United States Supreme Court decided in Kent's favor, freeing him to catch up with the exhibition later in Kiev. Though Sally and Rockwell Kent had missed the inaugural exhibition in Moscow, they were able during their visit to relive it vicariously through a film of the events being shown throughout the Soviet Union.8 The overwhelming display of respect for Kent's artwork, and for him personally, was cardinal in clinching his decision to place the Kent Collection there.

Thirty-one of the fifty-five paintings in the 1957-1958 exhibition were now returned to the USSR as gifts. Two additional paintings and a number of graphic works had already been purchased by the Soviet Union before the exhibition tour ended. The great majority of the Kent Collection went to the Pushkin State Museum—27 paintings plus November, North Greenland from the original purchase, approximately 415 drawings, and numerous prints, reproductions, and literary works (some of which were also included in the original purchase).

The second largest bequest went to the State Hermitage Museum—26 paintings (one of them, Adirondack Autumn, was later given to Odessa) plus Brewing Storm, Monhegan from the original purchase, and approximately 8 drawings in addition to numerous prints. The remaining collection was divided between the National Gallery of Armenia, Kiev Museum of Western and Eastern Art, and eventually, L'vov Art Gallery, Dilijan Regional Museum, and Odessa Museum of Western and Eastern Art.

Other paintings, such as Post Arrival (Pushkin), "The Farm on which I Live" (Tolchan Collection),9 Gorki House (Adirondacks) (Gorki Museum), and Sunset, Monhegan (Chegodaev Collection) were given away as gifts during the course of several visits by the Kents to the USSR. At least one small painting was given to the Kents' interpreter and friend Larisa Alushkina. A watercolor, Coast of Donegal, Ireland, was given to fellow artist and friend, Orest Vereisky. In addition, several graphics were given separately to friends throughout the Soviet Union.10

The vast majority of paintings in the Kent Collection depict scenes of Greenland, distantly followed by compositions of the Adirondack Mountains of New York, and Maine, with a few examples of other geographic areas. We know that Kent did paint in the USSR, but how many works he produced and where they are today no one can say. One of them, descriptively titled "Russian Landscape, Barvikha" (fig. 37), came on the auction block at Christie's in 1992.

"THE GREAT KENT COLLECTION"

For many years I have refrained from exhibiting and from offering pictures for sale, and as a result we are possessed of what we amusedly term 'The Great Kent Collection.'
—Rockwell Kent to Edgar P. Richardson, Archives of American Art, 18 June 1959

"The Great Kent Collection" was a representative body of the artist's work that evolved from two subcollections: the so-called "Lost Paintings"—which became the subject of a chapter in It's Me O Lord 11—and a body of work for which Kent had a special affinity and therefore kept throughout his life. Some other works were added to round out his oeuvre. In this volume I focus on those paintings that were given to the Soviet citizenry, not individuals. I touch upon the graphic works and literary materials included in the Kent Collection by way of brief mention and in an appendix. Another appendix includes a list of variant titles for the paintings and the locations of the paintings, as known.

My aims are to clearly identify the paintings in the Kent Collection, to provide the reader with a sense of the depth of the collection as a whole, and to reintroduce the reader to the depth and breadth of this important 20th-century American artist. My comments regarding the majority of these works are based, in part, on my personal examination of Kent holdings at the Pushkin, the Hermitage, the National Gallery of Armenia, and the Dilijan Regional Museum.

WORKS UNWITTINGLY PRESERVED

As with many a young artist, the praise comes faster than the dollar. Hence much of Rockwell Kent's early work produced during the first decade up to 1911 remained in the artist's hands or was passed on to family or friends as gifts, or in some cases, given as payment of debts. During these early years Kent was not only a budding artist but also a young father often in need of immediate cash for unexpected emergencies. On 19 April 1911, for example, Kent's second child, Kathleen, was born prematurely. With the frail babe and weakened mother both in need of special attention, Kent asked New York art dealer William Macbeth for assistance. Macbeth, who had already exhibited Kent and whose gallery served as a repository for some of Kent's canvases, gave him five hundred dollars; the artist in turn allowed Macbeth to select works that he felt were the financial equivalent. To Kent's surprise Macbeth selected thirteen paintings, including many of his finest canvases: Afternoon on the Sea (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco), Toiling on the Sea (a.k.a. Toilers of the Sea, et al., New Britain Museum of American Art), Road Breaking (a.k.a. The Road Roller) and Burial of a Young Man (both the Phillips Collection);12 a small price, Kent later recalled, for saving the lives of his wife and newborn.

EVOLUTION OF A PAINTING—COMMON IDENTIFYING MARKS

Many of the works acquired by Macbeth share a common identifying mark, that of a tacking margin title. This title—in some cases the first of several—was painted by Kent in upper case lettering to record his paintings. Croquet (private collection) and Monadnock, Trees Against Sky (The Art Museum, Princeton University) with top tacking margin titles, and Hypaticas (a.k.a. Winter Landscape, Indianapolis Museum of Art; fig 38),13 with a bottom tacking margin title, were all purchased by Macbeth.

This method of titling paintings continued until about 1914,14 after which Kent does not seem to maintain any consistent means of record-keeping. Toward the close of 1913 and into early 1914 the artist was making arrangements to move—with wife and now three children—to Newfoundland. In the process he assembled and packaged for storage his "lifetime's work in painting."15 Fortunately for the artist, his good friend George Chappell had a country home in Bantam, Connecticut, and allowed Kent to store these works in his spacious cellar. Chappell was a partner in the New York architectural firm Ewing and Chappell, at which Kent was employed as a part-time renderer. Chappell was also a writer of humorous verse illustrated by "Hogarth Jr."—Kent's pseudonym—for such literary publications as Life, Judge, and Puck.

Like the paintings sold to Macbeth, the majority of works stored at Chappell's were titled on the tacking margins. Berkshire Winter (Metropolitan Museum of Art) is one example. Some of the other paintings traced to Chappell, however, do not have tacking margin titles; the descriptively titled Monhegan painting, "Seascape with Rocky Shore" (Conservation Center of the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University)16 is one. That "Seascape" is not titled may suggest that Kent either gave this painting to Chappell as a gift or, according to Chappell family legend, to settle an outstanding debt,17 not an uncommon arrangement between the two. The presence of a tacking margin title does little to clarify how Chappell came to possess a given painting, but could imply that it was in his possession before 1914 and remained in the family until given to the present owners.18

In the chapter, "Lost Paintings," Kent recalls that in 1939 the stewardship of these paintings came into question when artist Alec James (1891-1946) informed him that George Chappell was offering his paintings for sale. That autumn Chappell did return most of the remaining paintings, though some works had already been disseminated among his family members. By Kent's account these paintings were returned in "appallingly bad condition." "However," he says in a letter to Dan Burne Jones regarding his painting "Cranberry Pickers" (Cranberrying, Monhegan, Terra Museum of American Art), "I managed to get it back in perfect shape."19 Kent often made repairs to his paintings, but the canvases stored in the cellar at Chappell's home required more attention than a simple touch-up or cleaning.

IDENTIFYING "THE GREAT KENT COLLECTION"

I am not trying to sell any of those [paintings] that are now in the Soviet Union. They will all be kept as parts of the 'Great Kent Collection.'
—Rockwell Kent to Dan Burne Jones, 7 January 1959

It is important to research the evolution of the paintings once in the possession of Macbeth and Chappell because such a study sets a framework from which one can identify and date works that eventually become part of the Kent Collection. Heretofore written and illustrative references to the collection have either been incomplete lists or limited in the depth of information they provide. Furthermore this material has not been brought into context with Kent's greater oeuvre. Such references have included: a list of painting titles and sizes compiled by the artist at the time of the gift; catalog checklists published by the late Soviet scholar Andrei D. Chegodaev; and partial catalog or magazine entries published in this country or the Soviet Union. The lack of thorough research into Kent's artwork has resulted in a considerable amount of confusion, since Kent is known for having altered the identity of his paintings in a variety of ways. He would retitle a painting, sometimes unintentionally; he could virtually duplicate a painting; during the lengthy process of completing a composition he would occasionally rework a painting; and in restoring several of the paintings returned by George Chappell, he often altered their compositions as well.

That Kent would retitle paintings seems innocent enough; the problem arises when identical or similar titles are attributed to comparable compositions. The painting Late Afternoon (collection of Jamie Wyeth; fig. 39) has the same compositional theme as Late Afternoon (a.k.a. Maine Fishing Village: Evening, Pushkin; p. 21) but they are separate works that vary slightly in composition and in size. Another topically comparable painting, Maine Fishing Village: Sunset (Kiev; fig. 4), is the same size as Wyeth's Late Afternoon and appears deceptively later than these two.20

Kent also produced virtually identical compositions, further complicating the problem of commonly used titles. Whereas Maine Fishing Village: Evening mentioned above has only compositional similarities to other works, Sun Glare (Fairbanks North Star Borough Library) is literally a duplicate of Sunglare: Alaska (Hermitage).

Unlike the Macbeth paintings that were sold and never returned to Kent's easel, paintings that remained in or were returned to his studio often evolved; one example, Greenlanders (Near Godhavn) (Hermitage), went on a five-city tour in 193421 in one state of completion, only to be reworked by Kent before being given to the Soviet Union.

The painting Spring Fever: Berkshire Hills, Massachusetts (Pushkin) shares the same geographic view from Greylock Mountain as do three of the Macbeth paintings: Snow Squalls (private collection), Winter, Berkshire Hills (a.k.a. Winter in the Berkshires. Wexner Center for the Arts, Ohio State University), and Berkshire Winter (a.k.a. Winter in the Berkshire Hills and "Berkshire Hills." Museums at Hartwick College) but in the process of restoration by the artist, Kent included two horses stylistically more consonant with his animals of the period of restoration (c.1940s-1950s) than of the original date of the painting (1908).

...continued in Rockwell Kent's Forgotten Landscapes by Scott R. Ferris & Ellen Pearce

FOOTNOTES

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