Specialist in the artwork of Rockwell Kent (1882-1971)
Essays on Rockwell Kent

In Review: Blue Day

Blue Day first came to auction at Sotheby's in December, 2003. It returned to the block, at Sotheby's, in May, 2017.

Ice Curtains
Fig. 1 - Blue Day

An ardent celebrant of Life, Rockwell Kent traversed the world, frequently leaving his footprints in its harsh polar regions. His deep affection for the distant latitudes has its roots in the Nordic tale, The Saga of Burnt Njal, a prophetic tome brought to his attention by his mentor Abbott Thayer. Kent recounts, in his exhaustive autobiography It's Me O Lord, that Burnt Njal "opened the gate upon that highway to the North which led at last to Greenland and Alaska" (Kent, p. 110). The artist's early, prolonged stays in the remote communities of Monhegan Island, Maine and Brigus, Newfoundland further encouraged him to venture north, as well as to Tierra del Fuego in the Antarctic. Kent's sojourns in the "wilderness–the only abiding place on earth of liberty" (Kent, Salamina, quoted in Scott R. Ferris, In the Presence of Light, 2003, p. xx)–were "the flight to freedom of a man who detests the petty quarrels and bitterness of the crowded world (Alaska Drawings by Rockwell Kent, New York, M. Knoedler & Co., 1919).

Rockwell Kent's tales of his first trip to Greenland (1929) are told in his book, N by E. The artist's graceless but newsworthy shipwreck upon the shores of Karajak Fjord initiated his historic three voyages to that largest of islands. His subsequent trips in 1931-32 and 1934-35 are retold in Salamina and Greenland Journal.

Many of the paintings that Kent created during his extended visits to Greenland typify the apogee of his artistic achievements. Blue Day, like his paintings Winter, Monhegan (Metropolitan Museum of Art), Toilers of the Sea (New Britain Museum of American Art), The Road Roller (The Phillips Collection) and Citadel (National Gallery of Art) share the pantheon of American Art with George Bellows's Evening Swell (itself an homage to Kent's Toilers of the Sea) and Edward Hopper's Early Sunday Morning (Whitney Museum of American Art).

Arthur Lismer, a member of the Canadian "Group of Seven," and no foreigner to the Arctic terrain, wrote that Kent "grasps the forms of earth and sky in a powerful summary and… feels the color and design fundamentally… he strives after the big rhythms creating order through the design of land, water and sky." (The Art Gallery of Toronto, Grange Park Bulletin, April, 1934). Distinguished art critic Royal Cortissoz wrote that Kent "secures his pictorial balance in the first place by his massive treatment of nature in all her dignity and then by the power with which he defines a long flowing contour" (New York Herald Tribune, February 8, 1942).

Like Citadel and Gray Day, Kent created Blue Day from abstract forms–paint applied with dabs and brushstrokes of varying sizes, shapes and orientation–that float within flat, horizontal fields of color: techniques that would appear years later in the paintings of Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko and the Color Field painters.

In September 1950, Robert McIntyre of Macbeth Gallery wrote to Rockwell Kent to inform him of a client's interest in purchasing paintings by the artist. Inspired by the shared interest in Progressive politics, Joseph James ("J.J." also known as Jim) Ryan, grandson of renowned financier Thomas Fortune Ryan, became the leading collector of Kent's paintings. Before the end of September, he had purchased three of Kent's canvases, one Irish and two Alaskan landscapes. In November, Ryan purchased another five paintings, including Citadel, Gray Day, and its companion composition, Blue Day. Not only is Blue Day one of the paintings Ryan selected from Kent's oeuvre, this painting was also chosen to appear on the cover of his autobiography It's Me O Lord. Ryan would acquire just over 30 oils in all, many of which, including Blue Day, along with 54 other oils and approximately 163 graphic works, was exhibited in five cities in the USSR from December 1957 through November 1958. The overwhelming positive response to Kent's work was a leading factor in his decision to bequeath his personal collection to the Soviet people. Had J.J. Ryan not purchased Blue Day prior to the exhibition, there is reason to believe that it would have become one of the paintings that Kent gave to the Soviet Union in 1960.

Oil on canvas mounted on plywood
34 x 44 1/2 inches
Signed and dated lower left: Rockwell Kent 1935-7, and inscribed lower right ©

The artist
Joseph James ("J.J.") Ryan (via Macbeth Gallery)
Peter Brady (nephew of J.J. Ryan)
Private Collection in Massachusetts
Collection of Richard Manoogian (via Sotheby's)
Collection of Deborah and Edward Shein

Washington, D.C., Gallery of Modern Masters, Greenland Paintings and Prints: Rockwell Kent, 1937, no. 17;
Dayton, Ohio, Dayton Art Institute, Paintings, Lithographs, Wood Cuts by Rockwell Kent, 1940;
Houston, Texas, Meinhard-Taylor Galleries, Paintings, Lithographs, Wood Cuts by Rockwell Kent, 1940, no. 6;
New York, Wildenstein Galleries; Los Angeles, California, Stendahl Art Galleries; Stockton, California, The Haggin Museum; Beloit, Wisconsin, Theodore Lyman Wright Art Hall, Beloit College; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Carnegie Institute; Boston, Massachusetts, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Symphony Hall, Know and Defend America, 1942-43, no. 19;
Moscow, USSR, Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts; Leningrad, USSR, State Hermitage Museum; Kiev, USSR, Kiev Museum of Western and Eastern Art; Riga, USSR, State Museum of Fine Arts, Rockwell Kent: Paintings and Graphics, 1957-1958, no. 38;
Portland, Maine, Portland Museum of Art, Rockwell Kent: The Mythic and the Modern, 2005, no. 130;
Salem, Massachusetts, Peabody Essex Museum, To the Ends of the Earth: Painting the Polar Landscape, 2008-09;
Canton, New York, Brush Art Gallery, St. Lawrence University, The Once Most Popular American Artist, 2012.

Rockwell Kent, Rockwell Kent, New York, 1945, illustrated;
Rockwell Kent, It's Me O Lord: The Autobiography of Rockwell Kent, New York, 1955, illustrated in color opposite p. 56, also illustrated in color on the dust jacket;
Jake Milgram Wien, Rockwell Kent: The Mythic and the Modern, Portland, Maine, 2005, illustrated p. 78;
Samuel Scott, Russell A. Potter, John Paul Caponigro, To the Ends of the Earth: Painting the Polar Landscape, Salem, Massachusetts, 2008, illustrated p. 4.

© Scott R. Ferris

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