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

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

Portrait of Artist's Sister
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.
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.

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.

Harrison Lake
Cleveland Salter Rockwell, Harrison Lake, 1893, o/c, 12 x 20.  Artwork in the public domain.
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.

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 Kent's paintings.

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.
Untitled (Backyard Fence, Seminary Street)
Barbara Kent Carter, Untitled: Backyard Fence, Seminary Street, c. 1956, charcoal on newsprint, 6 3/4 x 9.  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.

INHERITED INSPIRATION

Ice Light
Tim Carter, Ice Light, 1996, silver gelatin print, 13 x 19.  www.carterphotographics.com


Thayer Carter, Vermillion Cliffs, 2000, acrylic on paper, 32 x 28.  www.thayercarter.com

Jeremiah O'Brien
Thayer Carter, Jeremiah O'Brien, 2001, acrylic on canvas, 50 1/4 x 35 1/2www.thayercarter.com
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 (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.

Manana Island, Monhegan Island, Maine
Chris Kent, Manana Island, Monhegan Island, Maine, 1998, watercolor, 9 x 12, Sally Kent Collection.
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 changing environment.

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 landscapes.

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.


Ellen Pearce, Monday Morning, 2001, acrylic on canvas, 18 x 26.  www.ellenpearce.com

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.

All men Are Islands
Ellen Pearce, All Men Are Islands, 2000, acrylic on panel, 8 x 15.  www.ellenpearce.com
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 of others.

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 P. Adams.

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.

CODA

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

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