Scott R. Ferris, author and specialist on the artwork of Rockwell Kent, A Greater Luminosity
Specialist in the artwork of Rockwell Kent (1882-1971)
Essays on Rockwell Kent
The following essay was published in the exhibition catalogue, The View from Asgaard: Rockwell Kent's Adirondack Legacy
(Adirondack Museum. Blue Mountain Lake, NY. 1999) by Scott R. Ferris and Caroline Welsh. The essay, entitled
A Greater Luminosity: Rockwell Kent's Paintings and Related Work, is by Scott R. Ferris. The appendix, "Selected
Checklist of Rockwell Kent's Adirondack Works," is also by Mr. Ferris. Please visit your online or
local book retailer for a copy of the book.
A Greater Luminosity: Rockwell Kent's Paintings and Related Work
When the maxims come to read Art, science, religion, labour all for Life's sake, only then
can that perfection of life which we long for and which nature works for be achieved. Rockwell Kent, Daybook, Circa 1906.
It was almost evening, the fields that lay before us were richly lit, as if the sun that had
poured itself into the earth all day, all season long, were now being released through bark and
foliage Jane Urquhart, The Underpainter, 1997.
From Rockwell Kent's earliest writings we experience his
heartfelt longing for a sense of place in the physical world, as
well as a desire to attain spiritual resolve. Although much has
been said about the technical instruction Kent obtained while
attending Columbia University's School of Architecture, and that
which he received from his mentors William M. Chase, Robert
Henri, Abbott Thayer, and Kenneth Hayes Miller, little has been
written about his conceptual foundations. Despite his thorough
training, Kent was inspired most by life itself. "The greatest
feelings of life are universal," he wrote, and it
was nature — his life-long mentor — that served as his "ever present conditioner," as well as the primary
motif through which he conveyed his thoughts (Kent 1906; 1955, 526).
The signposts in life that Kent followed included rigorous labor, literature, and music. As a young man
on Monhegan Island, Maine, he dug wells and privies, harvested lobsters, and built homes, and in his
later years he operated a dairy farm. Kent's use of literature in his quest for self-awareness began in
the library of his childhood home and expanded with the encouragement of Henri and Thayer. He was
exposed to and found inspiration in the writings of Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, the Bible, and Darwin's
On the Origin of Species; he experienced, with lesser effect, Ernst Haekel, Henri Amiel, and Schopenhauer.
He loved the Romantic poets, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Keats, and Shelley; he enjoyed William Blake,
Richard Wagner's prose, Goethe's Wilhelm Meister, and Shakespeare. Kent specifically
attributes to Abbott Thayer his introduction to Kropotkin's Mutual Aid a Factor of Evolution,
and the Norse Sagas, the latter of which opened the gateways to his northern travels. In music it
was the opera (Lohengrin, Tristan), American traditional and spiritual, and the German
lieder of Robert Franz. Kent believed J. S. Bach to be "a glorious draughtsman [whose]
lines of melody and his manses of tone are marvelous. A great tonal architect!" Whereas such
contemporary composers as Stravinsky and Gershwin had talked about returning to Bach, Kent also
believed that the visual artists were going back to "the primitives," referring to "the old
masters who came not so long before Bach. Back to men who painted life as they felt it through
their eyes" (Dean of Painters... 1934).
One of the most influential, early guideposts that Kent came upon was Leo Tolstoy's essay, "What
is Art?" "And suddenly," Kent recalled in his 1955 autobiography Its Me O Lord, "it was
as though my whole being had achieved the power of utterance, as though a God within me spoke,
resolving the chaos that was me — my mind, my heart, my conscience — into an integrated man, aware
and purposeful." Especially noteworthy is this passage that Kent highlighted in his copy of
Tolstoy's work (fig. 38).
The destiny of art in our times consists in this: To translate from the region of reason
to the region of feeling the truth that the well-being of people consists in their union,
and to substitute for the present kingdom of force, the kingdom of heaven, that is, love,
which presents itself to us all as the highest aim of human life Kent, 1955, 91.
Kent's response to Tolstoy's "impassioned exhortation" was an ingenuous, "Amen"
(Kent 1955, 92). For Kent, the integration of art and social
conscience was the key to unlocking the door to his path in life.
A Discernible Emersonian Voice
"From within or from behind, a light shines through us upon things and makes us aware that
we are nothing, but the light is all. A man is the facade of a temple wherein all wisdom and
all good abide," wrote the American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson.1 Kent parallels Emerson in much of his thought and writing. Of mutual concern to these men was
the sentiment that "art has not come to its maturity if it does not put itself abreast with the
most potent influences of the world."2 As with Tolstoy, these
influences included peace and brotherhood, the plight of the laboring masses, and "the literal
acceptance of the moral teachings of Jesus" (Kent 1955,92).
Kent was coming into his own when the world-wide rift between the social classes was noticeably
growing. Having been raised in the precarious situation of genteel poverty, he became sympathetic
to the truly less fortunate. His understanding of Christian ethics was translated, politically,
into socialism, and his adherence to fundamental socialist philosophy remained with him the rest
his life. In 1904 he signed on to the Socialist party platform — child labor laws, an eight hour
work day, labor's right to organize — and in 1948, when he ran for a congressional seat under the
American Labor Party banner, his own platform espoused: "Peace and abundance... labor's right to
full employment and good pay... security for small business ... the preservation of our liberties,"
and prosperity in a "contented nation in a world at peace."3
Robert Henri once observed that "the very things [Kent] portrays on his canvas are the things he
sees written in the great organization of life; and his painting is a proclamation of the rights of
man, of the dignity of man, of the dignity of creation. It is his belief in God. It is what art
should mean" (Kent 1955,198). Kent believed that "in that act of
re-creation, which is art," he was copying God (Kent 1955, 138).
However, Kent's was not a literal translation but rather a portrayal of the essence of his
subject: "The greatest, most powerful, thoughts that nature arouses in us are not of herself
but of human life[,] and art should be a record of these thoughts not merely of the physical beauty
of the scene" (Kent 1906). Again, the similarities between Kent's thoughts
and those of the transcendentalists are striking. Emerson dwelled a little deeper on this topic when he
wrote, "the best of beauty is a finer charm than skill in surfaces, in outlines, or rules of art can
ever teach, namely a radiation from the work of art, of human character."4
Thomas Cole (fig 39) took this thought a step further by suggesting that "if the imagination is
shackled and nothing is described but what we see, seldom will anything truly great be
Several of Kent's later Adirondack canvases exemplify this reductive approach, including Asgaards
Meadows (fig. 18), Pine Tops and Mountain Peaks (fig. 34), Cloud Shadows (fig 36),
Ancient Elm (fig. 45), Mountain Road (fig. 35), and Asgaard in January (fig. 9).
By reducing trees, fields, mountains, and clouds to modeled forms, and layering these forms in distinct,
overlapping planes that recede to the horizon, Kent transposed luminism into twentieth-century
Clover Fields (fig 40) and Winter Sunrise, Whiteface Mountain (fig. 27) take a humbler
approach to conveying Kent's spirituality by drawing our attention to a narrow band — or patch — of light
in the distance. A sense of reverence is inferred as he entices the viewer through shadowy foreground
detail toward this band that is compressed by the muted sky above. It is as if the luminosity derives from
the candles of a secret ceremony. For Kent, finding truth in light was both a technical and spiritual quest.
"Light was the first of painters,"6 Emerson wrote; "a jet of pure
light" was the reappearance of the original soul."7 Kent, like the luminists,
took this interpretation to heart and re-created the same philosophy on canvas.
The Figure as Allegory
Walt Whitman in Leaves of Grass wrote, "(Ah little recks the laborer, / How near his work is holding
him to God, / The loving Laborer through space and time.)" Like Whitman, Kent's imagery flows with a playful
rhythm that is laden with romantic nationalism. He believed that "a truly native American art [included] all
the characteristics of subject (the American scene) and of method (realism) that are not only proper but
absolutely essential to the art of a Democracy" (Kent 1955, 519-520).
For Kent, the graphic arts — book illustration, and especially wood engravings and lithographs (which he
considered multiple originals) — were the most democratic of the arts. In each of these three categories he
excelled and therefore successfully broadened the audience for his message. To the uninformed, Kent's use of
the brush, pen and ink was frequently mistaken for his wood engravings. As an architectural student Kent was
taught how the brush could supplant the pen as a means to convey both fine line and the broad, seamless wash.
With ink and crayon he created illustrations for Moby Dick (1930), The Complete Works of William
Shakespeare, and Leaves of Grass (both 1936), his own books This Is My Own (1940) and
It's Me O Lord (1955), and the posters Forest Fires Aid the Enemy (1943) and Student
Christian Association Movement (1947), among others. Through a variety of printing techniques — line cut
and electrotype included — the artist was able to mass produce his realistic imagery in an even greater
diversity of formats (fig. 41).
Several of Kent's later paintings use figures or symbols of mankind's presence as devices to identify our
place in the physical world. In his earliest of Ausable valley landscapes — Adirondacks and Deer on Palmer
Hill (figs. 42, 43) — dilapidated structures and stumps of harvested trees are symbolic of mankind's
temporal existence. Adirondacks, in particular, portrays "the tragedy inherent to a region once
populous and prosperous" (Kent 1955, 437). This statement by Kent is somewhat
misleading. Cultivable land around the High Peaks region of the Adirondack Park (depicted here) was and is
scarce, due to the nature of the terrain. Kent did belong, however, to a greater association of North Country
farmers (fig. 44) — covering much of the northern tier to the Canadian border — who farmed lands that were
more accessible than those in his immediate area. It is also quite true that portions of the Adirondacks were
heavily harvested for various minerals and still are today for timber. During these periods of heightened
activity, workers often came in droves, establishing temporary communities that simulated prosperity (the
ghost town at Tahawus is witness to this). Some people settled in the region; others fled in search of new
employment. Therefore, Adirondacks may be interpreted as a symbol of the times in which it was created
(the beginning of the Great Depression), the often harsh conditions of life in the Adirondacks, or in a more
literal sense, a record of the landscape near Asgaard Farm before Kent made it his home (he removed dilapidated
farm structures to make way for his own buildings).8
The painting Ancient Elm (fig. 45) — lush in high-summer greenery — is rendered with fluid brush
strokes in modeled forms that resemble the oils of Charles Burchfield and Fairfield Porter. Kent's bold,
centralized portrait of this majestic elm invites a somewhat unconventional comparison between this painting
and his child-portraits, My Daughter Clara, and Heavy, Heavy Hangs Over Thy Head (fig. 46). In
all of these portraits the main subject is virtually thrown into the arms of the viewer, making no mistake as to
what or whom is portrayed. These child-portraits, in particular, are similar to folk portraiture (fig. 47) in
another way: they both provide information about the "sitter" in the composition around them. In the painting
Heavy, Heavy Hangs, the backdrop scenery is Kent's idealized Adirondacks, and in My Daughter Clara,
his romanticized Newfoundland. Kent employs a similar autobiographical method in his murals On Earth Peace
and Mail Service in the Tropic and Arctic Territories. In the lower left corner of On Earth Peace,
he incorporates an aerial view of his farm Asgaard (fig. 48), and in Mail Service, he places himself in
the cockpit of the plane about to depart from Alaska.
The paintings This Is My Own (fig. 49), Asgaard's Meadows (fig. 18), and Clover Fields
(fig. 40), portray the romantic or sentimental side of Kent. They are in essence the backdrop in Heavy, Heavy
Hangs Over Thy Head, the story of Rockwell Kent in the Adirondacks. Compositionally they share Kent's hallmark
horizontality in which stacked, compartmentalized planes move the viewer's eyes up through the canvas. Kent "secures
his pictorial balance... by his massive treatment of nature... and then by the power with which he defines a long
flowing contour," wrote Royal Cortissoz in his review of Kent's landmark traveling exhibition "Know and Defend
America" (1942-43).9 The horizontality that the artist creates is more obvious in
the study for This Is My Own (fig. 7), which does not possess any of the figural elements. Contrasting shadows
and sunlight, confined architectural structures, and overlapping individual mountains are (quite literally) modeled
forms stretching the dimensions of the board.
Kent is often criticized for adding figures to completed paintings; this is especially true with his later work.
This practice was usually misinterpreted as being the act of an aged, disoriented artist, when in fact his intentions
were deliberate. In the process of creating Skaters (fig. 50), Kent produced a small oil study (fig. 51) of
the basic landscape elements and pencil sketches of the figures (fig. 52). The artist likewise produced pencil
sketches for the numerous figures depicted in Asgaard in January, originally titled Home from School,
Asgaard (fig. 9) . In both of these paintings Kent worked up his studies on the larger canvases in his studio.
It is believed that he executed his painting Au Sable River Rapids (fig. 6) in the same manner. To support
this hypothesis, one can examine the development of the related composition Au Sable Rapids: Adirondacks.
Numerous pencil sketches have been found for this work, and a smaller, similar view of the Ausable, entitled Spring
Freshet precedes it.
In Kent's early work his figures are very painterly and blend in with the overall composition. Perhaps as a result
of the artist's regular attendance of dance performances — including those by Isadora Duncan and the Follies — these
figures often take on the appearance of "wispful" dancers. In his later work, however, Kent's figures are considerably
more rigid and angular, almost decorative; they often contrast with the more eloquent landscape. Consequently, they
tend to visually rise to the surface of the canvas in much the same way as folk portraiture. Their mannequin-like
positioning resembles the figures the artist created for Westinghouse (1931) or the 1939 Christmas Seal (fig. 53),
and like them, they successfully convey a story line.
Aside from the obvious message (Skaters and Asgaard in January are aptly titled for the
activities depicted), Kent's figures also provide insight into how an artist perceives society, and, perhaps, how
this artist perceived children (his own were raised in the Victorian manner of prescribed distance). In this respect
Kent's figures anticipate the sculptural work of George Segal and Duane Hanson in that they become a reflection of
how we envisioned ourselves at the moment of compositional creation. For Kent, we as humans divorced ourselves from
our natural origins, became materialistically dependent, and in the process, lost our spirituality. His mannequin-like
beings, not unlike those produced by contemporary fine and performance artists, addressed this spiritual void just as
we currently address the new conundrum, virtual reality.10 Perhaps Kent again had
Emerson in mind when he created these "artificial life forms." Although Emerson might have argued that "artificial
life" is also "natural ,"11 he did state that "the beauty of nature must always seem
unreal and mocking, until the landscape has human figures, that are as good as itself."12
In the compositions Oncoming Storm, Adirondacks (fig. 54), December Eight, 1941 (fig. 61), At Peace
(fig. 65), and Wake Up, America! (fig. 67), the figure or figures are more allegorical. Like the children in
Skaters and Asgaard in January, the bare-breasted, bucket-toting male in Oncoming Storm:
Adirondacks is a defining element in the story-telling title, but in contrast to the former paintings, he was
somewhat meaningless in the context of its original title, The Au Sable Valley.
The meaning behind Oncoming Storm: Adirondacks (fig. 54; study is fig. 55) is apparent only after the date
of the painting's execution is taken into consideration. In 1946 the oncoming storm, symbolized by the ominous cloud,
was the fledgling Cold War. Former allies, the United States and the Soviet Union in particular, were then in the
throes of combating ideologies. This convinced Kent "that only tolerance of each other's way of life by the two
great powers would ensure lasting, world-wide peace" (S. Kent 1971). He wrote to Pavel
P. Mikhailov, Acting Consul General of the U.S.S.R., "In these days, when the promotion of international distrust
appears to be the main business of many people and interests, I feel it almost as a spiritual need to drop in at the
Consulate and embrace you all" (Kent to Mikhailov, 11 Oct. 1945). The Kents had extended
their hands in peace repeatedly. On one other occasion they invited fifteen Soviet students (fig. 56) from Columbia
University to share in their Christmas (1942) celebration; twelve attended.13
In Oncoming Storm: Adirondacks, Kent reverses the natural order of things to depict the ominous cloud
bank — a metaphor for the Cold War — as approaching from the east. This suggests that the Great War in the European
theater was largely responsible for the Cold War. The position of the young man — apparently a farm laborer — facing
away from the oncoming storm, suggests that he is either oblivious to the storm or that he is well aware of the
oncoming peril and is moving west — to the home front — to douse the growing conflagration. Preliminary pencil
sketches and related works lend credence to the latter interpretation. In one pencil sketch the artist considers the
layout of the composition by placing a female figure, carrying a bucket in one hand and pulling a child in another,
racing ahead of a male who is laden with buckets in both hands. A second sketch (fig. 55) takes the concept of three
fleeing figures one step further by studying the individuals in greater detail. A third sketch, depicting the
bucket-toting male standing alone and facing the opposite direction — so as to observe the storm — supports the
suggestion that he is en route to douse the conflagration. Kent, as we know by the finished canvas, did not proceed
with the use of three figures to convey his message. Instead he reverted to the solitary male figure — erect, arms
taut, marching forward — thus maintaining an air of ambiguity. However, by Kent's re-titling the painting and an
examination of some related works, the artist's intentions are made clear.
Kent exhibited this painting as The Au Sable Valley in both the Carnegie Institute's "Painting in the
United States" (1948), and in the "25th Annual National Art Exhibition" (1949) held at Springville (Utah) High
School Art Gallery. Between these exhibitions and the 1957-1958 Soviet tour of Kent's work, the artist changed
the title to Oncoming Storm: Adirondacks. By making this change — without altering the composition — Kent
suggests that we refocus our attention away from the panoramic valley view and toward the male figure shrouded by
ominous clouds. Two related paintings — Green Valley and Untitled, View From Palmer Hill (fig. 57) — offer
figureless landscapes from this same location without straying into a deeper meaning. In an earlier study for a
pro-democracy poster (Columbia University), Kent utilized the now familiar erect male figure — a boy — marching
forward, but he heightens the effect of his statement by including the "sentimental, old-time" elements of a Norman
Rockwell composition (Kent 1936). An adoring girl races along beside the determined boy;
the boy is adorned in the knickers of a by-gone school dress code and is carrying a long, rifle-like branch. They
are both parading before a distant little red, one-room school house with an oversized flag unfurled by the breeze;
the backdrop to this scene is an Adirondack-like mountain range. Clearly the physical stance of the male figure in
this study represents something more than just a boy on an afternoon walk, and, in fact, it is an important element
of the pro-democracy statement. The same can be said of the posturing bare-breasted male in
Oncoming Storm: Adirondacks, whom we now understand to represent an active player in promoting peace in a
world being torn apart by the oncoming Cold War. This posturing element appears in numerous propaganda compositions,
including Aleksandr Samolhvalov's 1924 poster Long live the Komsomo1 [Communist Youth League].
14 If there was any doubt as to the purpose of Kent's poster study, he reinforces
it by including the caption, "That, for their sake, government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall
not perish from the earth" (fig. 58).
Kent was the ultimate recycler. He would often use stationery and scraps of studio paper rather than sketch pads
to render his concepts, and as a designer he would often reuse one compositional element to develop another idea.
The above mentioned preliminary sketches of a woman and child racing — for Oncoming Storm: Adirondacks —
appear again in a study for another wartime poster, but this time the woman is clutching children in both arms.
This study shows the figures running from a forest fire that has consumed their home, while men battle the blaze.
In two similar and conceptually progressive studies, the female figures are eliminated in favor of a solitary male,
and the caption "Forest Fires Are Axis Fires, Volunteer to Fight Them!" evolved to become, Forest Fires Aid The
Enemy, Volunteer to Fight Them (fig .59).15 Several of Kent's poster proposals
never came to fruition despite his petitions to President Roosevelt, William Phillips of the Division of Information
at the Office for Emergency Management, and others, but Forest Fires Aid The Enemy did. It was produced in
November of 1943 by the Office of Civilian Defense (Kent 1955, 543-546; Stanley 1989).
The solitary male figure, standing before a backdrop of flames and bracing a double bladed ax, lifts his left hand
to his mouth to command the reader to "Join the forest fire fighters service." A more refined variant on this
same theme was printed as a lithograph, without text, five years later. Fire!, as this composition is
titled, shows the fire fighter facing the opposite direction (fig. 60). This suggests that Kent traced over either
the poster figure or the original finished drawing and transferred this outline to the lithographic stone; in the
printing process this image would naturally be reversed. In the process of completing this lithograph the artist
chose to use subtler gradations in the smoke and shading, and finer lines for the flora, details that would have
been lost in the poster medium. The context for this lithograph, like that of Oncoming Storm: Adirondacks,
was defined by the times in which it was created. The instability of world peace by the fledgling Cold War was the
concern of every citizen in this country and abroad. From air raid preparation in the classroom to the battles
between President Truman and General MacArthur, to the turmoil at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, we were
constantly reminded of the world powers' polar ideologies and how to address them.
Throughout Kent's artistic career he illustrated the emotion "troubled" repeatedly: Foreboding(Kent 1920, 125), Lone Woman (watercolor, Brooklyn Museum of Art),
Foreboding and And Women Must Weep (lithographs), Sorrows of the World ("A Portfolio
of Drawings" published by Schering Corporation ), and the chapter head illustration "Brotherhood" (It's Me
O Lord, 489), among them. He also brings this concept to his painting, December Eight, 1941 (fig. 61 ).
Seen in the doorway of this painting are three female figures that represent pubescence, foreboding, and
unyielding hope, and the girl at the fence, innocence; far down the road, almost out of sight, we see a
wayfaring young man carrying a few bare necessities. Of this composition, which Kent originally titled,
The Open Road, he remarked: "The road that led out in to a wider world has been open for many
generations, and youth has taken it; and more youth now in these days will take it. And many, because of
what will happen to them, will never return" (Kent 1942). Regardless of which
title one applies to this painting, The Open Road or December Eight, 1941 — the latter
being a direct reference to the result of the bombing of Pearl Harbor — the story of love and loss remains
evident. Obviously Kent's titles and his statement on the painting help us better to understand his intentions,
but, unlike some of his more ambiguous work, the message is quite clear without them. The devices that the
artist employs are timeless. His use of figural positioning and color is standard and easily understood. The
woman leaning into the portal — her left arm covering her face, her right arm, raised in a gesture of emotional
surrender, supports her weakened state — is undoubtedly the young man's mother. Her positioning against a
clapboard house, and the implied reference to a male member of the family going off to war, were presaged by
the image Kent created in his lithograph And Women Must Weep (fig 62).
To her right, seated on the door steps, is her mother. A woman of age and experience, she has lived through
this turmoil herself (her husband apparently is no longer with her), yet she clasps her hands out of un
yielding hope. To their left stands a young woman adorned in the red of post-pubescence; she is one of two
sisters. She leans against the house, clutching her own left arm in despair; she has lived long enough to have
acquired some knowledge of the world and can understand the anxiety that her elders are experiencing. Her sister,
seen at the fence and dressed in the white of innocence, is too young and cannot. It is a vast world — here
represented by the Adirondacks — that the young man enters into, with much peril that he must negotiate. Where
the closed doorway may represent an ending, like that of the autumn which is upon them, the open second story
window represents the anticipated return of spring, and hopefully the return of the young man.
The lithograph Adirondack Cabin (fig 63) is another image that suggests love and loss, and may, despite
the acknowledged date of 1946, refer to loss due to the "Great War." Although the title aptly describes the locale,
the lone female figure implies deeper meaning. Kent has rendered this figure from above her ankles, bringing her
out of the domain of her Adirondack home and into the world of the viewer. The crossbars from the fence post are
gone, further opening her world to us. The young woman appears to be in shock; her facial expression and posture
are frozen. The disturbing letter that she has just read, she holds to her heart; the envelope she instinctively
drops. By depicting a solitary figure surrounded by the Adirondack "wilderness," the artist is telling us that no
one escaped the devastation of the war.
Kent's artwork during the period of the late 1930s and on through the next decade in particular provides us
with a glimpse into the emotional difficulties war created for the artist. An abhorrence of violence was a
fundamental belief of Kent's.16 Whereas the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti
by the State of Massachusetts in 1927 inspired Kent to produce his most graphic civil rights statements to
date (oil portraits of severed heads), war manifested equally dramatic statements. A small oil referred to
as War (1959) (fig. 64) depicts "Adam blasted to pieces and, in a sky lurid with flames, a
bomber."17 The scorched human torso retains enough muscle and bone to
convey an expression of the pains and horrors of war.
With this in mind it becomes easier to comprehend the enormity of Kent's commitment to human rights, to
social-democracy as a means of establishing social equality and progress, and his disgust for war and violence.
Therefore, when Fascism raised its viperous head in the Spanish Civil War, Kent struck back by providing the
Loyalist cause with financial assistance and propaganda art. When the United States and other world powers
refused to support the Loyalists, Fascism triumphed and gained a stronger foothold in Europe. In the aftermath,
Kent, the Lincoln Brigade soldiers, and others like them, were discouraged and refused to have anything to do
with the new battle (World War II).
Immediately following the Spanish Civil War Kent turned his enormous clout to the anti-war effort. It is
believed that the composition At Peace (fig. 65) was painted during this deceiving lull between wars.
This full-figured, semi-reclined woman appears to be on top of the world and supposedly far from the pervasive
troubles of the day. There is, however, an uneasiness that exudes from the painting. The clouds, like those
depicted in Oncoming Storm; Adirondacks, are an omen of approaching trouble; they appear to be
retreating from the area right of the composition. The woman is dressed in black, a color most often
associated with grief or death; her expression is restless, not relaxed. What's more, a certain intensity is
created by her proximity to the rocky ledge — a metaphor for the edge which Kent was about to cross over. We
have seen this woman before, as the motherly character in December Eight, 1941, and Hope Springs
Eternal (fig. 66).18 These figures are heavy, muscular, sculpted, like
the figures in Diego Rivera's Figure Representing The Black Race (1932, The Detroit Institute of Arts)
and Picasso's Large Bather (1921-22, Musées Nationaux, Paris), and represent Kent's own struggles
with relinquishing his hopes of peace, internally, and in the world theater. As Kent later recalled, "But in
1940, not even with Sally at my side, was the world — for me, for us, for anyone — that good"
(Kent 1955, 535). For Kent, the final blow to peace was Hitler's invasion of the
Soviet Union in June, 1941, which "opened a struggle between opposing ideologies." It was that war "that the
believers in socialism, in loyalty to their beliefs and to democracy, now backed. From that time on it was,
to me, our war" (Kent 1955, 542). Metaphorically, Kent leaps over the edge depicted
in At Peace and back into the fight against Fascism; the painting Wake Up, America! (fig. 67)
is representative of this monumental change in Kent's attitude toward war and symbolizes his decision to join
The androgynous, Amazon-like figure in Wake Up, America! represents the spirit of war. This war against
Fascism was not gender or racial or ethnically specific, it was, as Kent said, "our war." Kent had incorporated
androgynous figures in his earlier work (including Cromleagh, [Druid Sacrifice]) but this "spirit of
war" is a later model and appears to have its formalist origins in the 1938 Hugo LaFayette Black medal, Life,
Liberty and The Pursuit of Happiness (fig. 68). Like Skaters (fig. 50), Asgaard in January
(fig. 9), and Russian Mass (fig. 70), Wake Up, America! developed from numerous pencil sketches
and, in this case, a small gouache and transparent water-color study (fig. 69).
In content and in some respects, form, this figure is closely related to Kent's "Winged Victory" and Our
Seamen, Give 'Em A Hand poster studies, and his Fire! (fig. 60) and Eternal Vigilance
is the Price of Liberty lithographs. These works are propaganda art — promoting the anti-fascism/pro-democracy
cause — whose end goal is not unlike Norman Rockwell's Four Freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom to
worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear. It should be noted that this propaganda art differs from the
artist's three illustrations for The New York Evening Call — Life and "Art" (fig 38), Charity,
and See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil — which are blatantly pro-proletariat.19
Another symbolic figure that Kent includes in many of his compositions — paintings, drawings, prints, greeting
cards, and so forth — is the soaring figure, which he considered a "literal acceptance of a term of speech"
(Kent 1955, 424). The figure depicted in Russian Mass (fig. 70), with its
radiant diagonal light emanating from a sun-like source, illustrates the divine spirit portrayed in Sergei
Rachmaninoff's score. "Music was in truth the voice of Life, with Life's supremely conscious being, Man, its
instrument," Kent said (Kent 1955, 188). Russian Mass was the last of three
commissions that Kent received from Steinway and Sons. The other two interpret Stravinsky's The Fire Bird
and Wagner's The Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla.
Several preliminary pencil sketches for Russian Mass show an evolving horizontal figure that closely
resembles the fully reclined model in Kent's wood engraving, The Lovers, also of 1928. The assembled
worshippers and horse anticipate the artist's illustrations for Goethe's Faust (1941), Shakespeare's
Venus and Adonis (1931), and the ceiling mural at the Cape Cinema (1930, Dennis, Massachusetts). The
church is considered to be studio-created, as a similar structure does not exist in the immediate area of Asgaard
Farm. The landscape in the background does, however, resemble the rolling Adirondack foothills.
This interpretation of the divine spirit through the compositional element light returns in Kent's canvas,
America (fig. 71). Painted from virtually the same vantage point as his "ode to love" Pastoral
(1941) (fig. 72), Kent portrays a frontier family bathed in bold, diagonal sun rays emanating from behind
broken clouds. By illustrating two settlers at work outside their log cabin and the vast horizon beyond, Kent
is making reference to the settling of America, and as one could also interpret, to his deep American heritage
as well as his own founding of Asgaard Farm. Kent purposefully contrasts the tiny cliffs edge settlement
against the vaster landscape to suggest the smallness of the physical in the all-encompassing spiritual; the
sun's rays serve to heighten that affect. America, with its view of the setting sun — and essentially
the view from Asgaard — has its antecedents in Thoreau's verse, "Every sunset which I witness inspires me with
the desire to go to a West as distant and as fair as that into which the sun goes down. He appears to migrate
westward daily, and tempt us to follow him. He is the Great Western Pioneer whom the nations follow."
20 In essence, America possesses the foundations of a luminist
landscape — a subliminal spirituality created by the use of light and supportive structural elements — yet
with a twentieth-century treatment, Kent's.
So we have come full circle. Through Kent's exploration of himself he has found the inspiration and the
means — his art — by which to express his being. And through his canvases — Untitled, Asgaard Farm (fig. 5),
Cloud Shadows (fig. 36), their strong diagonal orientation toward his home — he has invited us to
experience the same. Of art he has said, "Art is not art until it has effaced itself. Only when the blue
paint of a sky ceases to be just color — becoming as it were the depths of space — is that blue right, and
truly beautiful. Only when green becomes the growing grass, or the earth-colors land and rocks, when indigo
becomes the ocean, and the colors of a figure become flesh and blood; only when words become ideas; when the
sounds of music become images; only when every medium of the arts becomes transmuted into a portion of our
living universe, only then is art consistent with the dignity of man" (Kent 1955,137- 138).