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

In Review: Gray Day

The following two writings were drafts for my essay for Sotheby's catalogue entry for Rockwell Kent's painting, Gray Day (see Sotheby's "American Art," New York, 21 November 2016, #25, pp. 46-51). A link is hereby provided for the actual publication: www.sothebys.com. I also provided Sotheby's with the basic catalogue data.

Gray Day
Fig. 1 - Gray Day. 1935-1937. Oil on canvas mounted on plywood.

The unprecedented assembling of numerous Rockwell Kents, for sale, at Sotheby's, Christie's, and the American Art Fair, in November 2016, undoubtedly had its effect on the Kent sales. The four paintings at auction–Gray Day, Icebergs (Greenland), Frozen Falls (a.k.a. Ice Curtains) and Alaskan Impression–reaped mixed results. The three prominent paintings offered by Manhattan galleries – Sledging, the descriptively titled "Greenland Mountains and Sea," and Sunday Evening, Greenland – went unsold (to my knowledge). Alaskan Impression broke public sales records for an artwork of that size. Frozen Falls was passed: perhaps because of the later, total reworking by the artist. Icebergs established a new second highest public sale record; and Gray Day became the new public sale record holder: both of which topped Polar Expedition, that was sold by Heritage Auctions just a few years ago.

For just reasons Sotheby's went all out in promoting Gray Day–numerous pages were devoted to the work within their catalogue, the painting appeared on the back cover of their main catalogue, as well as, in their mini-catalogue; the canvas was previewed on their 10th floor, with other (well established) "modernist" works; the painting hung above the auctioneer during the sale; in addition to other endeavors by the auction house. The reason for this outpouring of promotion was to point out the fact that there is a "quality tier" of artwork by Kent (as with all artists); and Gray Day, like Citadel (unfortunately buried in the collection at the National Gallery in DC), Blue Day, Toilers of the Sea (New Britain Museum of American Art), Winter, Monhegan (Metropolitan Museum of Art), etc., exemplifies the best in Kent: certainly on par with the best of Edward Hopper, Marsden Hartley, and George Bellows, among others. Gray Day was, simply put, the most important Rockwell Kent painting that was offered for sale in November: a point, I am afraid, that may have been lost on the buying public.

The sale at Sotheby's, as well as the November sale at Christie's, was reviewed by Maine Antique Digest (February, 2017) in the articles "Sotheby's American Art" (pp. 13-14-D) and "'Hands Up!' Goes Way Up" (pp. 26-28-E). A review of the American Art Fair sales, also penned by Julie Schlenger Adell, and which also included artwork by Kent, can be found on pp. 22-25A.


Gray Day
Fig. 2 - From a caricature of Rockwell Kent by Covarrubius. Publication unknown.

Throughout the 1930s Rockwell Kent's popularity had reached such heights that The New Yorker wrote: "that day will mark a precedent, which brings no news of Rockwell Kent." (November 20, 1937) And artists for Ken, Americana, Ballyhoo and other publications, caricatured Kent for his renowned wanderlust. Miguel Covarrubias played on Kent's restless endeavors to attain greater heights (publication unknown), whereas Alan Dunn played on everyman's desire to acquire "a new Rockwell Kent," as seen in The New Yorker (11/4/1933). With Newfoundland, Alaska, Tierra del Fuego, and now Greenland in his travelogues, Kent had become synonymous with the adventurous spirit; and while paintings like Gray Day are records of the artist's journeys, they are, above all, an extension of the artist himself.

In Greenland, surrounded by vast open spaces, polar light, endless horizons and barren terrain, Kent had found his ideal motif. His paintings Gray Day, Blue Day, Citadel, and North, among others, represent the consummation between artist and subject that defines his most revered work. Though other modernists, including Marsden Hartley, Georgia O'Keeffe, Arthur Dove and Edward Hopper, were visually reflecting on nature throughout their careers, the transcendent landscape had become Kent's most distinctive theme.

Kent's sojourns to the "edge of the world where infinite space begins" reinforced his belief that "it is the ultimate which concerns me, and all physical, all material things are but an expression of it." (Alaska Drawings by Rockwell Kent, M. Knoedler & Company, New York, 1919, n.p.). This continuity of thought was expressed again nearly twenty years later when he said that "speech at its highest art–its metaphors and symbols, its rhythms and harmonies, its moods, its forms, its being–is derived by man from his environment." (Kent, Salamina, 1935, p. 56) In Gray Day Kent spoke of his communion with Nature in a modernist language that blurred the line between academic illusionism and abstraction.

Other artists who traveled this middle passage included the organic abstractionist Arthur Dove, who exclaimed that "there is no such thing as abstraction" (Arthur Dove. "Notes of Arthur G. Dove." Dove Exhibition. 1929); and Georgia O'Keeffe, who exercised subjective realism to educe the essence of a subject. Wassily Kandinsky, a German painter solidly of the abstract camp, and of some influence to artists such as Marsden Hartley, proposed that "with the artistic reduced to a minimum, the soul of the object can be heard at its strongest through its shell because tasteful outer beauty can no longer be a distraction." (Donald Kuspit. "Concerning the Spiritual in Contemporary Art." The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890 - 1985. p. 314). In Gray Day Kent builds his representational imagery of the mountains of Kekertarssuak Island out of what appears to be random dabs and brushstrokes of varying sizes, shapes and orientation, floating within flat, horizontal fields of color–blues, magentas and raw umber: that would be painted by artists Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb in the decades to come.

While on his solitary journeys by dog sled throughout western Greenland, Kent heard the sounds of the wind sweeping across the ice packed fjords, the barking of his dogs, the scraping of the rails of his sled on the terrain, and the soul of the landscape. His were the ears of a pantheist–one who sees the creation as God, as opposed to a theist who sees God as the creator. Kent defined his belief system when he stated: "God had become to me the symbol of the life force of our world and universe; a name for the immense unknown. Imponderable, yet immanent in man, in beasts… in the earth, sun, moon and stars. It––I choose the impersonal pronoun as alone consistent with my faith––It was to me a force as un-moral as such manifestations of itself as storms or earthquakes, and for that very reason greatly to be feared. It was as un-moral and impersonal and splendid as its sunset's light on land and sea––and for that reason to be reverenced. I feared and reverenced god. In fear and reverence I painted"… Gray Day. (Kent, It's Me O Lord, 1955, p. 138)

Rockwell Kent was as roughly hewn from the proverbial American maple tree as were his spiritual antecedents Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman. Thomas Cole's conveyance of the "voyage of life" was a path similarly taken by Kent though with the harder edge of Winslow Homer and the spirit of Mother Nature. William Merritt Chase and Kenneth Hayes Miller helped the younger artist develop his sense of design and technical aptitude but it was Robert Henri and Abbott Handerson Thayer who instilled Kent with the belief in "art for Life's sake"; and Kent specifically credits Thayer for introducing him to the Nordic saga, Burnt Nyal, which he said "opened the gate upon that highway to the North which led at last to Greenland and Alaska." (Kent, It's Me O Lord, p. 110). (Kent met, and eventually married, Thayer's niece, Kathleen Whiting, whom he met at the elder's home).

Throughout Kent's adventurous artistic career, he had the support of several patrons–the art dealer Charles Daniel, and noted collectors Ferdinand Howald and Duncan Phillips–which enabled him to experience far away lands. In 1950 he met a new patron, Joseph James (J.J.) Ryan: the grandson of financier Thomas Fortune Ryan.

In a letter to Robert McIntyre, of Macbeth Gallery, –who served to introduce the artist and collector– Kent stated: "Gray Day, as I have told you, is in my judgment one of my very finest things" (November 9, 1950). And Gray Day, like Citadel, North, Blue Day (which also served as the dust jacket illustration), and May, North Greenland, all from Ryan's collection, were chosen as full page color illustrations in Kent's autobiography, It's Me O Lord (Dodd, Mead and Co., New York, 1955). Ryan, like Duncan Phillips decades before him, essentially had his choice of paintings: in this case, before the artist gave the bulk of his personal collection to the Soviet Union (1960). Ryan ultimately came to acquire over thirty oils and numerous works on paper for his collection.

Fittingly, one hundred years later, Rockwell Kent was rejoined with his colleagues–Hartley, John Marin, Dove, O'Keeffe, Stuart Davis–when Gray Day, Blue Day, and Citadel (now at the National Gallery), descended from Ryan, through his family, to the Shein Collection.


Kent's work gives the impression of a world beyond the human circle. These whites, pale greens, blues and yellows, these naked brown rocks and the cold green water–in the midst of our busy life they act as a corrective. They restore our sense of proportion regarding man and universe, they teach us that there really is something 'beyond' our petty affairs. … Over his work there hovers the great silent question that is the birthright of all significant art.

Washington Post. Gallery of Modern Masters, Washington, DC, exhibition review. Oct. 31, 1937.

Few other American artist since Frederick Church and William Bradford would expose themselves to such hardships in exchange for the exhilaration and inspiration nature offered. From Kent's window on Igdlorssuit he "came to feel–as though for the first time in [his] life–the beauty of the world!" Living, virtually outdoors, was "far profounder a devotion… than any Godward posturing of conscious worshippers! There," in Greenland,"was God's countenance itself, its light, its majesty of form, its power of life and death." (Rockwell Kent as quoted by Scott R. Ferris in his "Foreword" to Salamina. Wesleyan University Press, 2003. p. XX.)

In William Murrell's lengthy review of the 1911 Independent's exhibition, –"The Exhibition of Independent Artists"–he acknowledged the division of aesthetic camps that would formally raise its head with the Armory Show two years later. What he could not anticipate, or perhaps reconcile, was the interweaving of philosophies and methodologies. From his 1911 perspective, he saw that the "Post Impressionist," or "Neo-Primitives" (as he also referred to them), –in this case he was specifying four of the twelve exhibitors: Marsden Hartley, Alfred Mauer, Maurice Prendergast and John Marin–aimed to "give expression to the emotion caused by the object and not an impression of the object itself." Whereas of Kent's paintings, he considered them a "sturdy rendering of the grandeur and attraction of the big, open spaces." As we look at these predominantly nature-based artworks in hindsight, dividing each into abstract or realistic categories diverts us away from the heart of the matter: the spirit of the subject.

Arthur Dove and Wassily Kandinsky reinforced this notion in similar ways. Dove exclaimed, "there is no such thing as abstraction" (Dove. "Notes of Arthur G. Dove." Dove Exhibition. 1929), thus steering a "middle course between academic illusionism and modernist abstraction" (Kevin Muller. "Spirit of the Sea." Masterworks of American Painting at the De Young. pp. 323-324). Kandinsky was more direct when he stated: "with the artistic reduced to a minimum, the soul of the object can be heard at its strongest through its shell because tasteful outer beauty can no longer be a distraction" (Donald Kuspit. "Concerning the Spiritual in Contemporary Art." The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890 - 1985. p. 314). Similarly, Kent proclaimed that "it is the ultimate which concerns me, and all physical, all material things are but an expression of it." (Kent. Alaska Drawings of Rockwell Kent).

Critics often cited the artist's bravura brushwork, his propensity to reduce and model compositional elements, and his strong, defining contours: yet, they failed to see Kent's kinship with his broader community of contemporaries. It seems that many of the critics were as staunchly committed to labeling him as a pure realist as the artist was himself.

By Kent's third sojourn to Greenland, –1934-1935–his painting technique had evolved from applying thick, rapidly applied brushstrokes, which shimmered light from the surface, to smooth, flatly painted color areas, with simplified elements, that radiated from within. (with Gray Day he was well on his way to reversing the source of light in his compositions: a process that reached its culmination by the 1950s.) In essence, Gray Day, and paintings like it, were precursors to the compositions developed by the Color Field painters (Mark Rothko's White and Greens in Blue, for example). Kent's paintings Calm (Tierra del Fuego) and April Ice (Greenland) are clear examples of this reductive approach.

Also of note is how these paintings were constructed. In compositions such as Gray Day and Citadel, the basic technical structure belies the realistic results. Upon close inspection, the compositional elements in these paintings are born out of what appear to be randomly placed brushstrokes of irregular form and size. They are in themselves abstract compositions, precursors of the finished canvases of Franz Kline and Clyfford Still. If you were to examine these paintings by Kent up close, focusing on how the artist constructed the mountains, –their raw, jagged forms–they might appear to be by the same hand as the oil on canvas PH-858 of 1972 by Still. Now slowly step away from the painting. In doing so you will see that these abstract constructs take on a more representational form, that of Kent's most prominent muse, the mountain.

Now we have come full circle. Whereas Arthur Dove once suggested that "there is no such thing as abstraction," Kent could have comparably stated, "there is no such thing as realism." Both artists employed reductionist techniques, empowered by their spiritual relationships with Nature. At their finest, the works of both artists are modernist interpretations of the universe around us.

© Scott R. Ferris

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