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

In Review: Frozen Falls (Alaska)/Ice Curtains

Frozen Falls (Alaska), also known as Ice Curtains, was offered by Christie's, New York, in their 22 November 2016 American Art auction. It failed to sell.

Ice Curtains
Fig. 1 - Ice Curtains. Peter A. Juley & Son Collection, Smithsonian Institution.

Ice Curtains [original title]
Frozen Falls (Alaska) [Peter A. Juley & Son title]
Frozen Fall (Frozen Fall/1962) – pencilled on masonite
["Emerald": title referred to in Jake Milgram Wien's article, "Origin Stories No. 4: Rockwell Kent Paintings in Focus," Rockwell Kent Review, Volume XLI/2015-2016. The use of the title "Emerald," as applied to this painting, is unsubstantiated.]
Painted circa 1919 and 1952 (with alterations potentially occurring between these dates)
Oil on canvas mounted on masonite
34" x 28" (86.4 x 71.1 cm)
Signed lower right
[Original signature and annotation: "Rockwell Kent, Alaska, 1919." Confirmed in Peter A. Juley & Son photo.]
Labels on verso: "XII Esposizione Internazionale d'Arte/della Cittá di Venezia – 1920 1010" and "Merci Visitate/9057/Dogana Italiana."

This painting, as it was originally conceived, was titled Ice Curtains (Alaska Paintings exhibition brochure). A photograph taken by Peter A. Juley & Son (New York), circa 1920, bears the handwritten title, Frozen Falls (Alaska). A third reference to a title was written on the verso, in pencil, "Frozen Fall."

There are at least three paintings that are similar in appearance and similarly titled. As a result, it is virtually impossible to ascertain which among them were exhibited at any given time (that is, in their earlier history): The exception being when we have additional documentation–the title/composition relationship–Ice "Curtains"–in the Knoedler brochure; the labels for the Venice exhibition of 1920; the photograph of the painting at Frazers Stable Gallery exhibit.

EXHIBITIONS (Known)

M. Knoedler & Company, New York, Alaska Paintings of Rockwell Kent, March 1-12, 1920, no. 7;

Venice, Italy, "XII Esposizione Internazionale d'Arte/della Cittá di Venezia" (Twelfth International Exposition, Venice) April 15-October 31, 1920;

Frazers Stable Gallery, 1910 S Street, NW, DC, December 20, 1977-January 7, 1978.

OTHER POSSIBLE EXHIBITIONS: For "Frozen Falls"

Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, Rockwell Kent: Exhibition of Paintings [retrospective], January - February, 1924 no. 19 (As Frozen Fall);

Arts Club Exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago, Exhibition of Paintings by Rockwell Kent, March - April, 1924, no 14 (As Frozen Fall);

Wildenstein Galleries, New York, Retrospective Exhibition of the Paintings and Drawings of Rockwell Kent, April-May, 1924, no. 21 (As Frozen Fall).

LITERATURE (Selected)

Henry McBride, "Paintings by Rockwell Kent on View at Knoedler's–In Other Galleries," New York Sun, March 21, 1920;

Forbes Watson, "Rockwell Kent, Incorporated," Arts & Decoration, March 25, 1920;

"The Alaska Paintings of Rockwell Kent," New York Times [author unknown], March 7, 1920;

Benjamin Forgey, "Rockwell Kent: In His Paintings, a Paradox Recalled," Washington Star, December 20, 1977. "Frozen Fall" illustrated;

Jake Milgram Wien, "Origin Stories No. 4: Rockwell Kent Paintings in Focus," Rockwell Kent Review, Volume XLI/2015-2016. (Thought to be another painting titled Emerald).

Frozen Falls
Fig. 2 - Frozen Falls.

BACKGROUND

Rockwell Kent, with his son Rockwell (who turned 9 while in Alaska), "found Fox Island on Sunday, August twenty-fifth, 1918, and left there finally on the seventeenth of the following March." From this sojourn the artist wrote his tome, Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska (G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1920) and created dozens of paintings and drawings, and endeavored to make some relief prints. Two acclaimed exhibitions followed the artist's return: Alaska Drawings by Rockwell Kent (M. Knoedler & Co., New York, April, 1919) and The Alaska Paintings of Rockwell Kent (M. Knoedler & Company, March, 1920).

FROZEN FALLS: Its Origins

Frozen Falls (Alaska) was originally titled Ice Curtains before the artist reworked the painting to its current presentation. The former title was written on a photograph taken by the fine arts photographers Peter A. Juley & Son, in New York. The title Ice Curtains is documented in the brochure of Kent's first exhibition of this work, in 1920, at M. Knoedler & Company.

When one compares Frozen Falls with the photograph of Ice Curtains taken by Juley, you can see the pentimenti of the three dominant mountain peaks, as well as, the vertical strip on the left that once was the second waterfall (or a division of the larger waterfall to the right). This fits Kent's statement that he was "almost beneath a frozen waterfall" when he painted the work. (Kent, journal entry for February 14, 1919, as quoted in Wilderness, pages 184 and 187) The form of the waterfall on the right, as well as its supporting rocky cliff, is virtually untouched.

In Kent's book, Wilderness, he describes and illustrates the terrain around which this painting was conceived. However, one's interpretation of the terrain is obfuscated by the artist's later alterations to the painting. Kent notes that he painted at both geographical points (at the tips) of Northwest Harbour. From the southern point of Northwest Harbour, at a rocky promontory, –where the artist's painting Bear Glacier (and others) was painted–one could get a glimpse of the actual glacier, to the southwest, as it peeked out into Bulldog Cove, behind Callisto Point (see the U.S. Geological Survey map for the Blying Sound Quadrangle). This is how the painting, as we know it today, depicts the terrain. However, in Kent's physical description of an area that fits this painting, –his relationship to a frozen waterfall–it is at a spot from which it would be virtually impossible to see the tip of Bear Glacier. Kent wrote: "This afternoon I painted at the northern end of the beach almost beneath a frozen waterfall, an emerald of huge size and wonderful form." (Kent, journal entry for February 14, 1919) It is therefore possible that when Kent painted Frozen Falls, he was looking to the northwest. Kent's sketches on pages 134 and 162 (looking southwest) and on page 169 (illustrating "Frozen Fall," presumably to the northwest) also suggests that he painted at the two harbor points, thus, looking in two different directions. Furthermore, Kent states in his February 20th journal entry that he painted at the second point, the rocky promontory "between the two coves of the island"–there are two coves on Fox Island: Sunny and what Kent called Northwest Harbour. And, inscribed in the map that serves as front endpapers to Wilderness, Kent says, "At low tide one can climb around this head and pass from one bay to the other."

RELATED PAINTINGS

As I previously mentioned, Kent's painting Bear Glacier was painted at the base of the promontory between Sunny Cove and Northwest Harbour. Another composition that fits this description is Alaska (Art Institute of Chicago), though in this painting the prolonged rocky base is very abrupt, as it juts out into the water; and, on the opposite shore, a lower, timbered frontal range is dominated by a towering mountain peak in the distance. (This latter painting is signed, inscribed "Alaska," and dated 1919-27–a reference to its inclusion in the 1927 Wildenstein exhibition.) Because of the sharp differences between the Bear Glacier and Alaska paintings, it is possible that they do not represent the same geographical location.

Nevertheless, they do inspire us to consider the location/s of the various "Frozen Falls" paintings. Perhaps Bear Glacier even more so because of the fact that its cliff dons a frozen waterfall that is not unlike that which we see in Frozen Falls. And, in considering the location/s of the "Frozen Falls" works, we can begin to understand the development of these artworks, in particular–how they transformed from simplified, almost primitive landscapes into the more elaborately detailed paintings that they are today.

Before we close on comparative works, let's consider three more paintings. One painting that appears to depict the same location as Alaska (AIC) is a composition referred to as "Frozen Lake" (Brady Collection)–by way of pencil inscriptions on the verso (one, by Peter Brady, that may have no basis on fact; the author of the second inscription needs to be identified). This painting also appears to illustrate Callisto Point, but with the front range that I mention above. Another painting, simply known as Alaska (Edwards Collection), may have been painted from a higher elevation, possibly above Sunny Cove: it appears to depict Bear Glacier as it protrudes into Bulldog Cove, with a slightly downward view. Alaska, from the Edwards Collection, also reminds us of the many paintings of Resurrection Bay (Portland Museum of Art, Frye Art Museum, etc.).

The small "impression," "In Shadow of the Cliff," that is in the collection of the Alaska State Museum (Juneau), brings up another point for discussion: authorship. This latter painting is very crude in its execution–appearing to be by another hand; though it has good provenance–Richard Larcada, One Art Service. This work shows a similar scene, that of a rocky cliff to the left, a small bay, opening into what we assume to be Resurrection Bay, and a mountain range in the distance. As the proposed painting title, "Frozen Lake" (origin as yet unknown), suggests, and as Kent's map depictions define, there is a lake on Fox Island, around which the artist could have rendered some of these compositions.

WORKS IN A SERIES

Frozen Falls is one in a series of paintings that depict the frozen waterfall on the northern point of Northwest Harbour, on Fox Island. Two other works included in this series are what are known today as Frozen Waterfall, Alaska (originally known as Sun and Ice as well as Sun and Sea. Art Gallery of Hamilton) and Frozen Fall, Alaska (Plattsburgh State Art Museum).

The serial compositions of frozen waterfalls on Fox Island are only one of several series that Kent created throughout his career. Additional series included multiple depictions of the headlands on Monhegan Island, Maine, the view from Mount Greylock in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, and views of Mount Equinox in Vermont and Whiteface Mountain in the Adirondacks of New York. One can assume from these repeat visits to the same location that Kent intended to capture varying momentary effects. Indeed, as he said when speaking about his "Alaska Impressions" paintings: they are "exceptionally vivid impressions of momentary effects."

CLOSING REMARKS: Period Reviewers' Impressions of Frozen Falls (Ice Curtains)

A reviewer for the New York Times (March 7, 1920) wrote: "One of his titles is 'Ice Curtains,' and the drapings [sic] of frozen color associate themselves in one's mind with the drama of the Vikings. Only a race of giants could people such wilderness on a scale appropriate to the setting." And in a review by Henry McBride of the New York Sun (March 21, 1920) he opined: "The far north is gaunt and bare. The artist is more emphatic upon that point than any other traveller who got as far north as Resurrection Bay, but if I, as a critic, stand shoulder to shoulder with [other viewers] for a moment, it is not so much because of Mr. Kent's drastic simplifications as it is for the true effects of light that he dispenses and his genuine instincts for form and color."

As with many of Kent's paintings, further research is required.

© Scott R. Ferris

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