Specialist in the artwork of Rockwell Kent (1882-1971)
 
Essays on Rockwell Kent
The following essay was first published in FineArtConnoisseur. (January/February 2008. Volume 5, Issue 1). See www.fineartconnoisseur.com.



The Evolving Legacy of Rockwell Kent
 

Few figures in the history of 20th-century American art have received such praise, and nearly equal condemnation, as Rockwell Kent (1882-1971). For some, his name conjures up sweeping landscape paintings of Maine's Monhegan Island, austere renderings of Alaska, Tierra del Fuego, Greenland, and Ireland, or spiritually charged depictions of New York State's Adirondack Mountains. Others may recall his dramatic interpretations of Moby Dick, Candide, Beowulf, and the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare. Westinghouse, General Electric, Steinway & Sons, Sherwin-Williams, and Rolls Royce all capitalized on Kent's renown by commissioning advertisements from him. And his highly visible support of unions and other progressive causes, such as the International Workers Order and the American Artists' Congress, inspired the ditty published by The New Yorker in 1937: "That day will mark a precedent, which brings no news of Rockwell Kent."

By the early 1950s, American society had, in the midst of the "Red Scare," displaced Kent as its cultural icon. Senator Joseph McCarthy and his fellow investigators hurled enough mud at Kent that those less firm in their principles shifted their aesthetic appreciation away from him, for fear of guilt by association. The crowning blow was the art world's drift from realism toward abstract expressionism. Kent was relegated to relative obscurity, and the art historian Carl Zigrosser was right to describe this fluctuation from "extravagant praise to fanatic denunciation" as a phenomenon "based on non-aesthetic considerations or a misunderstanding of the real import of his work."

FORMATIVE YEARS

Kent was born to Victorian affluence in 1882. His father, Rockwell Kent Sr., was a partner in a prominent New York City law firm, and also a successful investor in Central American mining operations. His mother, Sara Ann Holgate, was the niece and surrogate daughter of James Banker, one of New York's first millionaires.

Kent's first five years were spent shuttling between the family's fashionable homes in the lower Hudson River Valley, Long Island, and Manhattan. This comfortable existence ended abruptly in 1887 when Kent Sr. died of typhoid fever contracted in Honduras, leaving Sara alone to raise Rockwell and his two siblings. Relying on the generosity of Sara's family, the Kents always hovered between upper-middleclass comfort and genteel poverty. Kent recalled that during this period he "was very much disturbed by there being some people with lots of money and lots of people with no money." Thus when he voted in his first election in 1904, he supported the Socialist Eugene V. Debs.

Kent's first love was painting. Though he formally studied architecture at Columbia University, he enjoyed a lengthier tutelage under some of his era's most prominent painters: with William Merritt Chase at his summer school at Shinnecock on Long Island, and with Robert Henri and Kenneth Hayes Miller at the New York School of Art (where his classmates included George Bellows and Edward Hopper). Kent later credited Chase with having taught him to use his eyes, Henri his heart, and Miller his head.

Of Kent's mentors, it was Abbott Thayer who made the most lasting impression. In the primitive but hearty surroundings of Thayer's studio at Dublin, New Hampshire, Kent participated in debates on the writings of Tolstoy, Emerson, Darwin, and Thoreau, listened to German lieder, and was introduced to the Nordic sagas. For Kent, these tales "opened the gate upon that highway to the North which led at last to Greenland and Alaska."

It was also at Thayer's home that Kent met the master's niece Kathleen Whiting, whom he would eventually marry. A devoted wife and mother, she remained loyal to Kent despite his open infidelities. Eventually his promiscuity and regular uprootings of the family wore on Kathleen, so the couple divorced when their fifth child was a toddler. Kathleen was the only wife with whom Kent had children, yet she, like his subsequent wives (Frances Lee and Shirley, or Sally, Johnstone), served at Kent's beck and call. Frances and Sally were also in charge of secretarial duties, in addition to keeping house and garden on a sunrise-to-sunset schedule.

In 1927 Rockwell and Frances Kent purchased a fallow Adirondack farm, which they renamed Asgaard and transformed into a thriving dairy business. This became the center of Kent's artistic production, and the setting of his legendary parties, where guests included Paul Robeson, Peter Freuchen, John Dos Passos, and Pete Seeger, among many others. (Asgaard also became Kent's final resting place.)

AN ARTIST COMES OF AGE

Robert Henri steered Kent down a momentous path when he encouraged him to visit Maine's rugged and picturesque Monhegan Island. From 1905 through 1910, Kent spent much of his time rambling over its rocky cliffs, finding an abundance of subjects to paint. It was also here that he was exposed to, and became engaged in, the labors of harvesting lobsters and building homes. On Monhegan Kent's love affair with nature and commitment to the working class were solidified.

In 1907 Kent exhibited a group of Monhegan paintings at New York City's Clausen Galleries; although this show was acclaimed, it did not do well financially, yet Kent had clearly come of age as an artist. This success won him further opportunities to exhibit, and indeed he figured prominently in the 1910 and 1911 Exhibitions of Independent Artists. Many of his subsequent exhibitions were widely noticed for their illumination of his journeys to remote polar regions. The 1920 publication of his illustrated diary, Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska positioned Kent as a leading travel writer, as well as a respected artist. Kent ultimately published five major travelogues, two memoirs, and innumerable writings and illustrated books, all of which earned warm praise. (Several were reprinted.)

In 1918 Kent became the youngest living artist represented in the collection of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, and in 1924 Wildenstein & Co., also in New York, hosted his first retrospective. Over the next 25 years, his work entered the permanent collections of such leading institutions as the Whitney Museum of American Art, Phillips Collection, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Art Institute of Chicago, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and Art Gallery of Ontario.

After being introduced to etching by John Sloan in 1910, Kent soon mastered other printmaking media. In the decades ahead he also made advertisements and architectural renderings; designed fabrics, metalwork, jewelry, and ceramic patterns; and painted murals, but discounted these activities as means of making a living.

Throughout his life, Kent's obvious talent attracted much-needed patronage: His mother and the New York art dealer Charles Daniel underwrote his stay in Newfoundland, while the Alaskan adventure was supported by the collector Ferdinand Howald. The collector Duncan Phillips offered Kent a monthly stipend in exchange for first choice of two paintings per year, and the artist even incorporated himself so that stock could be purchased by three investors, including the first director of the Whitney Museum, Juliana Force. (Within two years, he paid them back with a dividend.)

THE LOSS OF FAVOR

Kent was well known for his aggressive personality and outspokenness, which often got him into trouble. While he and his family were living in Newfoundland in 1915, he was suspected of spying for the Germans due to his intimacy with the German language and culture. Instead of downplaying this admiration, he fueled his neighbors' fears by placing a sign over his studio door that read "Bomb Shop, Wireless Room, Chart Room." (The family was soon deported, but the government of Newfoundland invited Kent back 52 years later to accept an official apology for its wartime hysteria.)

By the 1930s, Kent was active in dozens of causes and labor unions. In 1937, while painting a mural in the federal post office in Washington, he inserted a letter that read "To the peoples of Puerto Rico, our friends: Go ahead, Let us change chiefs"— a direct reference to that island's independence movement. In 1948, Kent's neighbors boycotted his dairy business to protest his support of the Progressive Party's presidential candidate, Henry Wallace, and Kent himself failed to win state office under the American Labor Party banner. In 1949, he attended the World Congress of Peace in Paris, and additional peace meetings in Moscow and Stockholm the following year. Upon his return to the U.S., the State Department seized his passport, and it was only after a lengthy lawsuit that Kent won the right, for all Americans, to hold a passport regardless of one's political affiliations.

Controversially, Kent became the first American to exhibit his art in the Soviet Union (1957-58). Inspired by the Soviet people's enthusiasm, he donated hundreds of paintings, drawings, prints, and writings to them in 1960. (The bulk of these are held by the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow.) In appreciation of this donation and his efforts toward world peace, the Soviet government awarded Kent the Lenin Peace Prize in 1967.

Kent always remained a socialist, a stance that made him persona non grata in many circles. Today, a new generation of scholars and collectors, more tolerant of his personal life and politics, are examining Kent's artistic achievements.

THE SLOW RETURN TO PROMINENCE

Early in 1969, Kent's home and most of its contents were destroyed by fire. Fortunately, much of his remaining artworks were either in his studio nearby, or at Larcada Gallery in New York City. Most of his papers were saved, and they now constitute one of the largest artist holdings in the Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Art.

Kent died in 1971, having laid the groundwork for the inevitable revival of interest in him: His friendship with George Angell, then president of the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, led to the donation of the collection for its comprehensive Rockwell Kent Gallery, and discussions with the publisher Angus Cameron eventually led to Fridolf Johnson's Rockwell Kent: An Anthology of His Work (1982).

Kent's popularity has increased gradually, with waves of activity concentrated in the years immediately after his death; around his centennial in 1982; and around 2000 as the market for modern American art soared. The first wave saw the publication of Dan Burne Jones's The Prints of Rockwell Kent: A Catalogue Raisonné, as well as the launching of George and Gladys Spector's newsletter, The Kent Collector, now issued by the Rockwell Kent Gallery. The second wave focused on centennial exhibitions, and on the publishing of David Traxel's An American Saga: The Life and Times of Rockwell Kent (1980) and the anthology mentioned above. The latest wave began with the publication of my own Rockwell Kent's Forgotten Landscapes (1998, with Ellen Pearce), and the mounting of such exhibitions as the Adirondack Museum's The View from Asgaard (1999) and Rockwell Kent: The Mythic and the Modern at Maine's Portland Museum of Art (2005).

The reasons for this revival are complex. The wide-ranging nature of Kent's oeuvre — from spiritually charged to documentary, from realist to modernist — makes it difficult to categorize, yet also accessible to an unusually broad audience. Fortunately, the strength of the American art market has encouraged scholars, dealers, and collectors to mine the field more deeply, returning to the surface material by Kent that has not been seen in generations.

A RECEPTIVE MARKETPLACE

Not surprisingly, Kent's market values have increased. In 1990, the auction record for one of his large oils was $64,900 (set at Grogan's in Massachusetts); in 1996, this rose to $156,500 (Sotheby's), and in 2004 to $300,000 (Northeast Auctions, Portsmouth, New Hampshire). Although they do not report their sales publicly, commercial galleries have sold major oils for as much as $650,000. The highest prices are generally brought for Monhegan and Greenland scenes, though other landscapes have also fared well.

The auction record for a watercolor signed and dated by Kent is $45,000 (Sotheby's, 2005), and for a large drawing $21,600 (Sotheby's, 2004). Kent's prints, especially his marvelous wood engravings for the American Car and Foundry Company, have approached the $10,000 mark (Swann Galleries, New York, 2005), although they can often be found well below $5,000. Though the highest-valued lithographs — including Sermilik Fjord, Charlotte, and Self Portrait — usually sell above Kent's other prints, they remain, on average, below $6,000.

The 1930 three-volume edition of Herman Melville's Moby Dick, illustrated by Kent and housed in an aluminum slipcase, has reached the $3,000-5,000 range, while other limited editions range from $250 to $1,800. His inscribed cards and letters have fetched up to $3,300 at auction, depending, of course, upon their content. Other Kent ephemera — such as bookplates and exhibition catalogues produced during his lifetime — can now command several hundred dollars. Kent's work can be found regularly at galleries in New York City (D. Wigmore, Hollis Taggart, Owen, Questroyal), Tom Veilleux (Portland, Maine), Aaron (Chicago), Thomas French (Fairlawn, OH), Brock & Co. (Carlisle, MA), Sunne Savage (Winchester, MA), and Abigail Furey (Brighton, MA). The Internet, and particularly eBay, has made his books, ephemera, and prints more readily available.

When any artist's reputation is revived, the market often experiences an influx of dubious works. Indeed, another artist by the name of Rockwell Kent (who lived 1858-1934) produced prints and prose that have sold attributed to the master. Still other works, signed "Rockwell Kent" or "R. Kent," have surfaced at sales and even museum exhibitions. Buyers should thus move carefully and consult a knowledgeable dealer or scholar whenever possible.

Fortunately, our collective understanding of Kent's achievement will soon be enriched when a retrospective drawn from Plattburgh's rich holdings opens at the New York State Museum in Albany on November 15, 2008. This project will surely enhance Kent's visibility and reputation still further, a process that looks set to continue for many years to come.

SCOTT R. FERRIS is compiling the catalogue raisonné of Rockwell Kent's paintings. He has organized several Kent exhibitions and has authored, among other publications, Rockwell Kent's Forgotten Landscapes (1998) with Ellen Pearce and The View from Asgaard: Rockwell Kent's Adirondack Legacy (1999) with Caroline Welsh.

© Scott R. Ferris
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