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

Mr. Kent Goes to Washington (Again):
A Gift to the American People

When the new gift of Rockwell Kent's oil painting, Citadel, goes on display at the National Gallery of Art, it will not be the first time that Kent has made an appearance in our Nation's capital. In fact, it will not be the first time that this painting has been displayed, publicly or privately, in Washington, DC.

Citadel

It could be said that Kent made notable appearances in DC on three previous occasions: the first being while under the patronage of Duncan Phillips––the grand patron of American art, whose self named museum, The Phillips Collection, once boasted ownership of at least 15 oil paintings, drawings, watercolors and prints by the artist.

Kent's second notable presence came on two occasions in 1937 when, one, his highly controversial mural for the Benjamin Franklin Post Office was unveiled––this two-panel mural was commonly referred to as the "let us change chief's" mural because of its overt support of independence for Puerto Rico; and two, the Gallery of Modern Masters hosted "Greenland Paintings and Prints: Rockwell Kent." Of the 19 paintings and 10 prints that were on display, prints were the only works that sold. (Citadel had been priced at $1800.)

Kent's third most memorable appearance occurred in 1953 when the artist was summoned to appear before Senator Joseph McCarthy and the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations on "charges" that he was a communist. Kent took the Fifth Amendment before the Committee but once outside the hall he proclaimed to the world, via television, that "I am not now and I never have been a member of the Communist Party."

Just prior to Kent's confrontation with Senator McCarthy he was under surveillance for his association with numerous "leftist" causes––he was a protagonist for innumerable unions; during Christmas of 1942 he hosted Soviet students from Columbia University; he attended meetings of the World Congress for Peace in Europe and the Soviet Union in 1949 and 1950, and the list went on. Due, in part, to his prominence in these so-called leftist causes, Kent found a patron in J. J. (Joseph James or "Jim") Ryan, a descendant of Thomas Fortune Ryan, the multi-millionaire financier.

On 16 September 1950, Robert McIntyre, of the prominent New York City gallery William Macbeth, wrote a letter to Kent seeking artwork for one of his clients. From an initial purchase of 3 paintings J. J. Ryan came to acquire more than 30 oils, including Citadel, and several other works. Thus began the patronage that supported Kent through the tumultuous decade of the 1950s: through a decade of litigation, ––the prolonged case that ultimately concluded at the U. S. Supreme Court: a case that became known as "The Right to Travel"––and a virtual boycott of his artwork in commercial and arts venues.

Several of Ryan's Kents––including Citadel, Blue Day, Gray Day, North, and May, North Greenland––are among the best works the artist created, and were highlighted in Kent's autobiography, It's Me O Lord.

By the turn of the century four of these paintings were acquired by collectors Ed and Deborah Shein. Ed, under his firm American Art Search, was no newcomer to Kent: he had brokered several Kent paintings throughout his 40 years in the business, ––"Neither Snow, Nor Rain, Nor Ice," Croquet, Artist in Greenland, Headlands and Sea––while also marketing other important 19th and 20th century artists/paintings.

As Shein's "inventory" of artwork evolved so did his consideration of Kent's work. Once a strong advocate of Kent's early Monhegan Island canvases, Shein came to appreciate the modernist aspects of the artist's finest Greenland compositions. Though Shein initially passed up an opportunity to purchase May, North Greenland, he soon after acquired Citadel, Blue Day, and Gray Day with the assistance of this author. Each of these paintings would complement Shein's other area of interest, early American modernism (see American Modernism: The Shein Collection. National Gallery of Art. 2010-2011). By adding Kent's work to their collection the Sheins inadvertently regrouped (some 100 years later) former friends and contemporaries, Kent, Mardsen Hartley, Stuart Davis, Arthur Dove and Georgia O'Keeffe. And with the gift of Citadel to the National Gallery, the museum restores, and shares with it's visitors, this lost episode of 20th century American art.

So what makes Citadel one of Kent's finest paintings? It's that rare union of profound subject matter, refined composition, and technical acumen. For Kent the mountain was his muse. Though he was speaking about Mount Whiteface, ––the beacon, westward, from his farm in the Adirondack Mountains––at the time that he wrote this, the same description applies to Citadel. Kent believed that a mountain commands, "not by its height alone or by the grandeur of its form, but by that portion of the unchanged wilderness that it holds up for us to see and contemplate; a symbol of immutability." And to accent his point, as we see in Citadel, he visually restrains the mountainous apex of Karrat Island within the confines of his canvas: thus highlighting the solid mass, texture, and muted colors of the rock.

Citadel not only holds its own among the artwork of his contemporaries at the National Gallery but also among some of the artist's other important works that hang in Washington, DC––Snowfields, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum; Burial of a Young Man, Road Roller, North Wind, and Azopardo River at The Phillips Collection; and Adirondacks at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

With the addition of Citadel, one of the artist's most important Greenland paintings, Washington, DC has now become the ideal city for viewing the work of Rockwell Kent. The city boasts two murals––the Benjamin Franklin Post Office murals (now the William Jefferson Clinton Federal Building) and the "On Earth Peace" mural, originally in the room of the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce (in the Longworth House Office Building); artwork that depicts Kent's travels to New England, Alaska, Tierra del Fuego, Ireland, France, the Adirondacks, and now Greenland; nearly the full range of media in which Kent worked––oil paintings to watercolors and drawings, the varied print media, photography, etc.; and the largest collection of Kent's papers, housed in the Archives of American Art.

Coda:
Valley View, 1801 Foxhall Road, DC (the home of Elinor Morse Ryan Brady, sister of J. J. Ryan, and the last of the significant private properties in the city) to the National Gallery of Art. In hindsight, it could have been a short trip for Citadel: yet it resulted in a journey of three locations and 20 years. The view from the center: well, it could not have ended better.

In the beginning of this chapter of my shared path with Rockwell Kent, I did not foresee the outcome of the destination of this painting or the direction that all of the players would take: It is safe to say, neither did they. I trust that this gift of Citadel to one of our Nation's most renown museums, will reawaken academia and introduce future generations to the accomplishments of one truly American artist.

Kudos to Peter Brady (son of Elinor M. R. Brady), Ed and Deborah Shein, and the curatorial staff of the National Gallery of Art for their roles in the development of this provenance. May this be the beginning of a lasting chapter in Rockwell Kent's renaissance.

Addendum:
Some of the locations where visitors can find work by Rockwell Kent:

  • National Gallery of Art
  • The Phillips Collection
  • Smithsonian American Art Museum
  • Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
  • Corcoran Gallery of Art
  • Archives of American Art
  • American University
  • Library of Congress
  • William Jefferson Clinton Federal Building
  • Longworth House Office Building
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