Generations: The Artistic Heritage of Rockwell Kent was published in conjunction with the exhibition of the same
title. The exhibition was held at Frye Art Museum in Seattle, WA, from September 13-December 1, 2002. The core exhibition
originated at Plattsburgh State Art Museum, Plattsburgh, NY, under the exhibition and brochure essay title,
Generations: The Artistic Influence of an American Master. This exhibit was held January 26-March 23, 2002. This
latter essay varies slightly from the Frye Art Museum essay due to alternate artwork displayed at each institution. Another
variant essay was published in American Art Review––October, 2002. Past tense has been inserted into statements
regarding Barbara Kent Carter and Gordon Kent as they have passed away since the inception of this essay.
GENERATIONS: THE ARTISTIC HERITAGE OF ROCKWELL KENT
FROM THE TREE
Generations of artists are not uncommon. In the families of Pieter Brueghel, Charles Willson Peale, Abbott Handerson Thayer,
and N. C. Wyeth, a prominent father/artist figure generally assumed the responsibility of guiding his own childrens' technical
development. In the family of Rockwell Kent (1882-1971), however, this was not the case. Kent's influence came from his strong
philosophical convictions and the physical presence of his work—paintings, drawings, prints, books—not through direct
There is no precedence in the Kent family for a direct artistic lineage although Kent's great uncle, Cleveland Rockwell, his aunt,
Ellen Josephine Holgate ("Auntie Jo"), his cousin, Alice Kent Stoddard Pearson, and his sister, Dorothy Kent, all practiced the
fine arts with varying degrees of success. To this broad heritage must be added the family of Kathleen Whiting, Kent's first wife.
Her uncle, Abbott H. Thayer, reined as the artistic beacon from which generations, including his daughter, Gladys Thayer Reasoner,
and son, Gerald, were guided.
While Rockwell Kent never formally studied the arts with his elders, his family certainly provided the cultural stimulus. Artworks
by Auntie Jo and Cleveland Rockwell, as well as others, were displayed in the family home. The practice and enjoyment of music and
literature were also family traditions. At the age of thirteen Kent accompanied Auntie Jo on a trip to Dresden and Holland, where she
pursued her studies of decorating china and flower painting. When Kent expressed a desire to paint his mother financed summer
sessions with William Merritt Chase. Moreover, Auntie Jo, a one-time student of Abbott Thayer, arranged Kent's apprenticeship
with her former teacher; she also arranged for Kent's first solo exhibition at Clausen Galleries in New York.
Without a doubt, the dichotomy of Kent's childhood—living in affluence one moment and relative poverty the next—and the era
during which he matured, had as much influence on his direction and success as did growing up in a family that loved the arts.
His social fabric and work ethic were born of his childhood environment and led him to believe in "Art for Life's sake." Kent
became a bridge between Victorianism and Modernity that for subsequent generations has served as a source of familial irritation
as well as inspiration.
Kent studied with Abbott Thayer during the summer of 1903. He quickly befriended Thayer's son Gerald and became a frequent
visitor at the family's New Hampshire home. By 1908 Kent met and fell in love with Gerald's cousin, Kathleen Whiting; the two
were married on New Years Eve of that same year—1908-1909.
ROCKWELL KENT (1882-1971)
Kent's painting, Monhegan (1907), expresses the unrefined innocence of an exuberant, budding artist who was racing headlong
into life, grappling with his own identity as well as an artistic style. The artist's energy, reflected in this canvas, was as
unbounded as the elements of this isolated Maine Island. His blunt realism of this period forever identifies him with his Ash
Can School heritage. Kent revisited this scene repeatedly during one of the most prolific chapters of his life (1905-1910).
The weathered tree stumps, distant pyramidal mountains, and sheer rocky headlands that we see in
Resurrection Bay (1918-1939)
represent signature elements from several of Kent's early Alaska compositions (1918-1919), including
Into the Sun and Otter
(not in exhibition). These works have come to symbolize the "pilgrimage of a philosopher in quest of Happiness" [Kent, 1919].
Resurrection Bay possesses the aura of raw energy that we see in
Into the Sun, yet with a more polished surface, reminiscent of
Otter. These rather contrary effects suggest that Resurrection Bay was composed over an extended period of time.
Eskimo Study, Greenland (ca. 1934) offers a third impression of Kent's diverse oeuvre. This watercolor of a solitary female
figure, seated stiffly in traditional costume, lost in a distant gaze, is related to several paintings resulting from Kent's
three trips to Greenland (1929-1935). The exaggerated articulation of the figure, however, may indicate that Kent intended to
use this image for an advertising commission.
ARTISTS IN THEIR OWN RIGHT
Abbott Thayer (1849-1921), the so-called "father of camouflage" was renowned as a figure painter and naturalist; he was also
considered to be an eccentric. His book, Concealing-Coloration in the Animal Kingdom, with artistic contributions by Emma
(his wife), Gerald, and Kent, was an effort to promote his theories of camouflage to the U. S. government, unfortunately
without success. Thayer's portrait, Woman in White Dress (1910), is believed to depict the model, Alma Wallerman, the year
before she married the artist's son. The authorship of the portrait is easily recognizable due to its conveyance of idealized
beauty. Thayer's mastery of pigment and his concern for the integrity of the subject were teachings that Kent would apply
to his own work.
Abbot H. Thayer, Portrait of Artist's Sister
c. 1879, o/c with wooden strips, 24 1/8
x 19 3/16
Artwork in the public domain.
Auntie Jo (1858-1935) was "a gifted professional watercolorist," as Kent recalled [Kent, undated, unpublished manuscript],
whose forte was floral still-lifes and decorated china. Her work was included in the annual exhibitions of the Art Institute
of Chicago and Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. She taught Kent the art of china decoration and together they supplemented
the shallow family coffers by selling their wares to their Tarrytown, New York neighbors. Aside from the few works that Kent
inherited, little remains of her artistic record. Auntie Jo's legacy was her inspiration to Kent and the professional
opportunities she provided him.
There is no current evidence to suggest that Cleveland Rockwell (1837-1907) was as influential on Kent's career as his Auntie
Jo or Abbott Thayer. Kent was certainly aware of Rockwell's work with the U. S. Coast Survey and related artistic accomplishments,
as confirmed by his preservation of an ink drawing entitled, The Sugar Loaf, Hudson River (not in this exhibit). Kent may not
have known, however, that his great uncle preceded him to South America, western Canada, and Alaska. Rockwell's oil on canvas,
Mt. Shasta from Strawberry Valley (ca. 1879), rendered in the Hudson River School style, typical of the period, captures
the untrampled wilderness that Kent frequently sought. Its panoramic view and grandiose treatment of California's Mt. Shasta
resembles the landscapes of Albert Bierstadt, though on a much smaller scale.
Cleveland Salter Rockwell, Harrison Lake
, 1893, o/c, 12 x 20.
Artwork in the public domain.
Unlike Kent, whose extended stays on Monhegan Island, Maine were limited to two distinct periods, his cousin, Alice Kent Stoddard
Pearson (ca. 1885-1976), returned to the island throughout her life. Kent maintained contact with Stoddard Pearson primarily
through family channels and by chance mutual stays on Monhegan. While crossing paths it is likely that the two became aware of
each other's artistic accomplishments. In Stoddard Pearson's unfinished view of Monhegan village and neighboring Manana Island
(ca. 1942), she conveyed a familiarity with Monhegan's atmosphere and unique physical characteristics that are also portrayed in
As a young adult, Kent's sister Dorothy (1888-1981) moved from Tarrytown to New Mexico, where she pursued her love of the violin
and painting. In 1917 she joined her brother and nephew (Rocky) in submitting artwork for the Society of Independent Artists
exhibition held at New York's Grand Central Palace. Like Kent, Dorothy found her voice in a variety of media—watercolors,
oils, lithography—and, as we see in her compositions of the American southwest, she reduced the complexities of nature to
highly stylized, modeled forms. Dorothy enjoyed a modicum of success, exhibiting her work throughout her life.
Kent's artistic influence on his children was limited. In recounting his own development as an artist, Kent stated, "I believe
that the majority of children...if given merely the opportunity and the means, take to making pictures; and this natural tendency
is almost certain to assert itself if, in the child's near human environment, there happens to be an artist"
[Kent, unpublished ms.]. Only two of his five children, however, dabbled in the visual arts and neither of them pursued it as
a career. Instead Kent's influence would surface in the following generation.
Kent's eldest son, Rockwell Kent III ("Rocky," 1909-1986), expressed himself equally through play acting, writing, drawing and
painting. Despite his enthusiasm for the visual arts during his adolescence, his later career search led him through astronomy,
dairy farming and forestry before settling on physics. Rocky's childhood creations range in subject from naive interpretations of
animals—goats, fox, magpies—to "pictures of an imagined world," prompted by "the fairy tales that children hear"
[Kent, unpublished ms.]. Some of Rocky's drawings appear in Kent's book, Wilderness; many are illustrated
letters to his mother; while others appear in his personal volume of natural history he titled Triypool.
Rocky's drawings were also displayed in his father's Alaska Drawings exhibition in 1919 at Knoedler
Galleries (New York). One of Rocky's fanciful paintings that hung in the 1917 Independents exhibition sold to the
artist Abraham Walkowitz for $25.
Barbara Kent Carter, Untitled: Backyard Fence, Seminary Street, c. 1956, charcoal on newsprint,
Artwork courtesy of the late Barbara Kent Carter.
Rocky's youngest sister, Barbara (1915-2002), studied at the Art Students' League (New York) for two nonconsecutive years during
the early 1930s. As she recalled, the League was loosely governed, allowing students to study from the model or the "book" whenever
they desired. Barbara continued her studies at home by copying her father's work. This may explain the stylistic similarities
between her sketches, including Backyard Fence, Seminary Street, and some of Kent's early drawings. Throughout the ensuing years
Barbara continued to sketch for her own enjoyment.
Few of Kent's descendants ever really knew the family patriarch. Some of the eldest grandchildren, who enjoyed extended stays
with Kent, occasionally reaped the benefit of a critique of their artwork by the master.
Tim Carter, Ice Light
, 1996, silver gelatin print, 13 x 19.
Thayer Carter, Vermillion Cliffs
, 2000, acrylic on paper, 32 x 28.
Thayer Carter, Jeremiah O'Brien
, 2001, acrylic on canvas, 50 1/4
x 35 1/2
Tim Carter (Barbara's son, b. 1935), who remembers a harsh review by his grandfather, overcame his childhood embarrassment to
pursue the arts. He chose photography as a way to express himself and making a living. He prefers a black and white format
because it best conveys his perception of stark landscapes. Tim believes his piece, Ice Light, with its contrasting
tones and the suggestion of an immense landscape, reflects his grandfather's influence. Tim's compositional design—sloped
mountainside protruding from the left and three stacked horizontal planes—resembles Kent's Greenland painting
Sledging (not in exhibition), in reverse. Tim alters this formula in Encampment, which, with its
vertical furrows, distant structures, and heavy cloud cover, recalls several of Kent's views of Whiteface Mountain (Adirondacks).
Lone Tree, like photographs by Jerry Uelsman, is lyrically
infused, enticing the viewer to search the composition for deeper meaning. Some of the haunting effects come from the artist's
manipulation of the imagery. Kent used this same subject in his paintings
Ancient Elm and Ancient Oak (not in exhibition) to
symbolize heritage and independence.
Observers have noted striking similarities between Tim and Thayer Carters' (b. 1942) compositions. Considering that these
brothers have seen little of each other or their respective works for several years, one could infer that Kent is their common
source of inspiration. Visually and conceptually Tim's Early Pond, like Thayer's,
Vermillion Cliffs, reincarnates Kent's reductivist tendencies as a way of conveying the grandeur of nature.
Thayer's marinescape, Sunspots, North Atlantic, depicts a view of the ocean from the starboard side of a ship, dissected by mast
and rigging. This image recalls Kent's book illustrations, The Lonsdale, from
Voyaging and Cutting In from Moby Dick. Thayer,
namesake of Abbott Thayer, says he pays homage to his grandfather by addressing "man's relationship with nature, a feeling of
loneliness...and a sense that things are bigger than we are."
Chris Kent (Rocky's son, b. 1956) continues the tradition of working in a realist style. Like his grandfather he trained in a
branch of architecture—landscape architecture—which has some effect on how he perceives and develops his compositions.
It may be the nature of his chosen medium (watercolor) or perhaps the effect he wishes to achieve, that brings about another
similarity between Chris and his grandfather—their use of light.
Following in the footsteps of Kent and Cleveland Rockwell, Chris has traveled the northeast, Alaska, and the west coast to
embrace nature and enhance his "library of real world images." As a result, he contributes to an historical document of our
Chris Kent, Manana Island, Monhegan Island, Maine
1998, watercolor, 9 x 12, Sally Kent Collection.
Another family member with whom Chris shares some artistic affinity is his sister, Clara Dennison (b. 1958). The common ground
in their works is a spiritual interpretation of the landscape that they shared in childhood (eastern Massachusetts), exemplified
by her Supporting Columns and Silently by the River.
Clara finds that the monotype process, "with its inherent surprises, layered textures and colors," enables her to explore "what
can be seen and what needs to be imagined." For her "the art of seeing is based on an intuitive recognition of the essential
spirit of a place or phenomenon." Although Clara, like many of her relatives, had no intimate contact with her grandfather,
she experienced his world vicariously through his artworks and books. Unexpectedly, perhaps, there exists a kinship between
Clara and Kent in her more abstract works—A Treasure and Around the Oak. She, like her grandfather, has
the ability to make line speak and her free flowing brushwork resembles the underpainting found in many of his early
Molly Carter (b. 1970), Thayer Carter's daughter, works with feathers, juxtaposed with crinoline framing and other materials, to
create large installations. In her sculpture, A Pair of Feather Skirts, represented here by three relief etching studies, the
two diametrically opposed elements form an impractical garment, or a "beauty modifier," as Molly prefers to call it. In this work,
as well as in her series, How to Measure a Wig, she explores "the relationship we have with our bodies and how one goes about
enhancing or changing their appearance to fit culturally defined ideals of beauty."
Abbott Thayer defined idealized beauty simply and honestly. When he applied wings to his models he heightened that idealization,
infusing a transmundane quality. By reconsidering beauty and incorporating feathers in her compositions Molly unwittingly transcends
generational and conceptual barriers.
Many of Ellen Pearce's (b. 1946) landscapes express the tensions between human activity and the natural world. The origin of this
inharmony may have its roots in the "family legacy of emotional austerity," she confides, that became apparent when her mother
(Clara Kent Pearce, the Kents' third child) and grandfather severed relations. In her painting,
Monday Morning, she implies tension
by depicting a street, channeled between walls, flowing into an artery of traffic. In contrast, Ellen contends that her paintings
Slot—an O'Keeffe-like passage through crimson rock walls—and
Confluence express a "universal sense of planet," an idea often
addressed by her grandfather.
In much the same way as Kent, Ellen, as well as Molly and another cousin, Patrick Finney, draw from current issues for their
concepts. By titling her painting, All Men Are Islands, Ellen pointedly disagrees with poet John Donne's notion that "No man is
an island." Our present state of uncertainty and fear, born of the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11th, 2001,
has made islands of us all. Though intended as a generic statement, Ellen's
All Clear reiterates the bunker mentality initiated
by this tragedy.
Patrick Finney (son of Kathleen, the Kents' oldest daughter, b. 1940) frequently expresses himself in black, cynical terms.
His compositions are provocative, reflecting the dismal headlines we ingest on a daily basis. In segments from two of his
sequential works (shown here), Patrick's intent is to "challenge the dominant political, social and religious paradigms" that
exist in America. In The Industrial Zone, he asserts that Senate minority leader Trent Lott is not as righteous as he hopes to
be perceived. Patrick suggests that Lott, like Clinton prosecutor Ken Starr, hides his own misdeeds by exposing the failings
The "comix" genre, within which Patrick works, found popularity during the 1960s through artists Robert Crumb, S. Clay Wilson,
and others. Related forms of sharp-edged satire, however, long precede the days of Crumb: Kent took the pseudonym Hogarth,
Jr.—a reference to the biting humorist, William Hogarth—when he illustrated the satire of George Chappell and Franklin
Patrick's more recent work, bearing the titles such as, Boy Scouts Appreciation Day,
The Priests and a Boy in the Garden of
Eden, and Autumn in New York, are screen print compositions that encapsulate their stories in one frame. Their topics, ranging
from the Supreme Court's ban on homosexual Boy Scout leaders, pedophiles in the church, and our country's disclaimer of
responsibility in the tragic events of "9/11," are vivid reminders of an imperfect society.
Generations locates, on the art historical map, a family of important American artists. During the course of researching this
exhibition, I identified additional Thayer and Kent progeny who have sought expression in the arts. Thayer's granddaughter,
Jean Reasoner Plunket, is a portraitist. Kent's children were musically inclined: Kathleen Finney played violin and Gordon
Kent played classical guitar. His grandchildren—Natasha Kent, Sally Pearce Cox, Kathi Finney Coane—and their cousin,
Marcia Kent Holden Blanco, have enjoyed or continue to enjoy painting or drawing. Kent Carter is a musician, David Kent an
actor, Rosie Carter, a writer, and with each new generation the artistic heritage continues.
© Scott R. Ferris