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

In Review: The Other Rockwell Kents: An Introduction

"Some things have to be believed to be seen." - Ralph Hodgson (1871-1962)

Rockwell Kent (1882-1971) was a renowned artist in the fields of painting, printmaking, book illustration, commercial design, and watercolors: so much so that his artwork was copied throughout his life: from students who wished to learn the master's techniques, to copyists who mimicked his style.

Over the past several decades I have been presented with paintings (and occasionally works on paper) for which auction houses, galleries, museums and collectors have sought authorship confirmation. Many are documented, others are of questionable attribution. For those that are questionable, the works are often signed "Rockwell Kent"; sometimes rendered in a style similar to that of Kent; and occasionally the content–the assumed geographical location, for instance–recalls the work of our protagonist. (The file on these "non-Kents" has grown exponentially.)

Adding to the confusion, Rockwell Kent was not the only artist by that name. In the early 1900s he exchanged correspondence with his namesake: a man who was near the end of his career as a proofreader for the major New York City area newspapers, and as an amateur prose writer and printmaker [he lived 1858 to 1934]. Throughout the years the artwork by this gentleman has often been mistaken as that by the principal character in this essay. [For more information on the man see of one of my earlier In Reviews–"Addendum for the exhibition brochure, Generations," in Essays, at www.scottrferris.com.] There are, undoubtedly, other artists in the "annals of creativity" by the name Rockwell Kent.

Moby Dick
Fig. 1 - Rockwell Kent. Illustration for Herman Melville's Moby Dick. (p. 705) Random House, 1930.
Amos-the-Wanderer
Fig. 2 - Des Rosiers. Dust jacket illustration for W. B. Maxwell's Amos the Wanderer. Dodd, Mead & Company, 1932.

What I wish to accomplish in this edition of In Review, is to introduce you, the reader, to the muddied waters of authentication. And illustrate how, by way of descriptive and visual comparisons, dubious attributions could be problematic for academia and the art market of today. Outright copying of the artist's work and misattributions are nothing new in the Kent world, as we will see below. I will not be illustrating every "non-Kent" that I have on file as that would require a much lengthier publication. Let's begin with examples of situations that Kent personally experienced.

Greenland Coast
Fig. 3 - Unconfirmed attribution. Signed "Rockwell Kent" and dated "1907," lower left.

Admiration or Pirating

In a March 10, 1934 letter to Howard Lewis of Dodd, Mead and Company, Inc., Rockwell Kent wrote: "Here is proof of the illustration on page 705 of the trade edition of 'Moby Dick.' I should like to be present when the young prize fighter explains the likeness between his drawing and mine." (fig. 1) To which Lewis responded (March 12th, 1934): "Thank you for sending the proof of the illustration from 'Moby Dick' which Mr. Des Rossiers [sic. des Rosiers] admired so much that he used it for a jacket drawing for Amos the Wanderer, by W. B. Maxwell, which we published in 1933 [sic. 1932]. Mr. Des Rossiers came in this morning and he informed me that he will make his peace with you in person. He could hardly deny that the two pictures were practically identical." (fig. 2) [Dodd, Mead and Company went on to publish Kent's autobiography, It's Me O Lord in 1955.]

N by E
Fig. 4 - Kent. Illustration for Kent's N by E. (p. 8) Brewer & Warren, 1930.
Desmond Holdridge's Northern Lights
Fig. 5 - Edward Shenton. Illustration for Desmond Holdridge's Northern Lights. (p. 3) The Viking Press. 1939
The Bookman
Fig. 6 - The Bookman. December, 1932.

And then in 1965, in a November 23 letter to Richard Larcada [Kent's gallery representative], the artist wrote: "It may amuse you to know that the Wickersham Gallery two weeks ago was showing–and still may be showing–a little 12 3/4" x 15 1/2" pastel of a winter scene titled 'Greenland Coast,' allegedly signed by me and dated 1907. (fig. 3) The picture was reproduced in the catalog, and its price, as ascertained by the friend who sent the catalog to me, was $1,700. I wrote the Director, Mr. June, that I had never in all my life used pastels, that I have never seen the place that was pictures [sic.], that it was not, as in the catalog it was called, 'Greenland Coast'; and that I had not seen the Greenland coast until twenty-one years after the date ascribed to the picture. In short, it is a complete fraud. I was interested in reading in the New York Times of a few days later that picture frauds are so prevalent in New York nowadays that legal action against them is being considered. Incidentally, Mr. June has not replied to my letter. I wish I knew how to give the matter publicity. Such frauds deserve to be exposed."

From an historical perspective many other examples abound. Harry Cimino's illustrations for Seven Horizons, and Edward Shenton's drawings for This Is My Country and Northern Lights paid homage to Kent's creativity. Shenton's illustrations for Northern Lights virtually duplicate many of Kent's images from N by E. (figs. 4 and 5) Artworks by other artists have often been and still are mistaken to have been rendered by Kent. In 2004 Swann Galleries, of New York, sold a Steele Savage drawing as a Kent, noting "stylistic comparisons with other drawings." Unbeknownst to Swann, The Bookman, in a December, 1932 issue, illustrated the drawing they were selling–from Louis How's, The Other Don Juan–comparing it with Kent's illustration of a monk, from Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. (fig. 6) [The Bookman caption title incorrectly refers to the drawings as "two woodcuts." In Kent's case this is a frequent misnomer: moreover, many of his drawings were rendered with brush and ink.]

From One…

By examining one painting of dubious authorship we are often led down paths towards many.

Vermont Study
Fig. 7 - Unconfirmed attribution. "Vermont Study."

Early in the previous decade I was shown an unframed oil on canvas board of a landscape, purportedly depicting a view of Mount Equinox, near Arlington, Vermont: one that is signed "Rockwell Kent." The painting was in the hands of a prominent New England art dealer. I was informed by the dealer that an associate of his, whom he described as a "picker," –someone who seeks out art and antiques from primary sources–found the painting at a flea market in New Hampshire. The dealer expressed doubts, to me, about the attribution. Another individual later saw the painting, accepted the attribution, and proceeded to acquire the work. The painting has since appeared in several publications and exhibitions as by Rockwell Kent (1882-1971).

The painting, referred to as "Vermont Study" (fig. 7), certainly has some similarities to Rockwell Kent's oil paintings of Mount Equinox, as well as to a reverse painting on glass (also executed by the master). Yet it likewise has similarities to paintings that are distinctly not by Kent. Perhaps the most damning evidence against a Kent attribution, though, is the distinct difference between this painting and a study that was handed down from Kent's first wife, Kathleen, to one of her grandsons. Let's begin with the latter painting, first.

Mount Equinox, Vermont
Fig. 8 - Kent. Study for a view of Mount Equinox, Vermont.

Known Kents

The Kent family painting, unsigned, –authenticated by Kent's son, Gordon, in a letter on the verso–depicts a view toward Mount Equinox, in winter. (fig. 8) The sky is heavily overcast, and the colors, muted. The pigments are raw; the elements, basically defined. The oil paint is lightly applied on a wood board: quickly sketched in with broad and narrow and abrupt, horizontal and vertical brushstrokes. In short, it is typical of Kent's approach to laying out the foundation of small studies, and often times larger, what would become finished compositions: a method perhaps inspired by one of his earliest mentors, William Merritt Chase.v

Painting on Glass
Fig. 9 - Kent. Reverse painting on glass.

In contrast, due in good part to the medium, the reverse painting on glass glistens. (fig. 9) The pigments are brushed on flat and smooth, on the textureless pane of glass. The compositional elements, and hues, share visual qualities with some of Kent's earlier Berkshire (Massachusetts) landscapes.

Similarities and Differences

"Vermont Study" has the glistening effect that we see in the reverse painting on glass: as if the pigment was mixed with linseed oil. Any sheen that we see in Kent's Vermont paintings (like others from his greater oeuvre) is more a result of the varnish that he used to cover his completed works.

So-called Greenland Painting
Fig. 10 - Unconfirmed attribution. A so-called Greenland painting.
Study 244 (Signature)
Fig. 11 - Unconfirmed attribution. Inscription on verso.

Kent frequently created three predominant visual tiers, or planes–fore-, mid and background–in his compositions: with compositional elements within those planes that are appropriate for that space–a height or width ratio that represents the distance of the given element: such as a field or trees, for instance. "Vermont Study" breaks those planar boundaries with elements that stretch from one plane to the next–the mid ground field overlaps with the foreground field. It lacks the definition of the frontal plane we commonly see in Kent's Vermont (and other) compositions. What serves as a frontal plane in "Vermont Study" are two diagonals, that originate from the left and right edges of the composition, that meet in the center. (The form on the left displays a crude, furrowed effect, atypical of Kent.)

The paint is heavily applied throughout "Vermont Study." And long, continuous brush-strokes and serpentine patterns, like wrappings, (one stacked above another) form the distant mountain. Kent's application of pigment is lighter, freer. And within his compositions he often contrasts abstract "patches" against well defined elements that he wishes to highlight–a blurred hedgerow focuses the eye toward a tree, deer or mountainside. There are no such contrasting elements in "Vermont Study": contrasting colors, perhaps.

In "Vermont Study," the foliage and mountain peak become little more than muddled brushstrokes. This manner of rendering shares characteristics with a so-called Greenland painting of equally questionable attribution (inscribed on the verso: "Study 244 Rockwell Kent"). (fig. 10 and 11)

Adirondack Landscape
Fig. 12 - Unconfirmed attribution. "Adirondack Landscape."

From One, the Many…

Another painting that had been attributed to Rockwell Kent (1882-1971), –which has been referred to as "Adirondack Landscape" (fig. 12)–possesses striking similarities to "Vermont Study"; and in its similarities pulls us further away from an association to Kent's work. It, like "Vermont Study," is an oil on canvas board. It is composed, in part, by glistening, sweeping brushstrokes and patterns that provide the contours of hills and mountains: with a palette further afield than that which is common to Kent. And like "Vermont Study," an element, the clouds in this case, are heavy with impasto.

"Adirondack Landscape," like "Vermont Study," is rendered on (maker labeled) canvas boards. The former painting bears a two-toned brown, rectangular label for "H.R. Giger, Ltd./New York, Boston," with a letter "G" within a crest, above this text. And the canvas board for the latter painting bares a red, scalloped, circular label–more like a stamped seal–which reads: "J.H. Hatfield Hand Ground Artists' Colors. Canton Jct., Mass." (Both, Boston area makers or suppliers.) Kent rarely used canvas board, and those that are known do not bear these labels. Kent used a "Royal Crest Illustrating Board," manufactured by Hurlock Bros. Company, Inc., from Philadelphia, for his commercial illustration, "Science Explains the Fish Deluge"; and the canvas boards for his Greenland, figural works, Northern Exposure and Southern Exposure, give the impression of being homemade: a simple board covered with canvas, with no labels on the versos.

Mount Equinox, Winter (Signature)
Fig. 13 - Kent. Signature for Mount Equinox, Winter.
Alaska Impression (Signature)
Fig. 14 - Kent. Signature for Alaska Impression.
Vermont Study (Signature)
Fig. 15 - Signature for "Vermont Study."
Adirondack Landscape (Signature)
Fig. 16 - Signature for "Adirondack Landscape."
City Scene
Fig. 17 - Unconfirmed attribution. City scene.
City Scene (Signature)
Fig. 18 - Signature for city scene.
Farmer
Fig. 19 - Unconfirmed attribution. Farmer, with a horse, plowing a field.
Farmer (Signature)
Fig. 20 - Signature for farmer, with a horse, plowing a field.
Mountainous Winter Landscape
Fig. 21 - Unconfirmed attribution. Mountainous winter landscape.
Mountainous Winter Landscape (Signature)
Fig. 22 - Signature for a mountainous, winter landscape.
Alaska Impression
Fig. 23 - Kent. Alaska Impression.

"Vermont Study" and "Adirondack Landscape" are finished, generic works that could represent a variety of geographic locations. The Kent family painting, in its depiction of the view of Mount Equinox, is visually representative of Kent's other Vermont landscapes; and its manner of construction–the technical aspects of its creation–has precedent in innumerable paintings that come before it.

Belief Through Association

"Vermont Study" was (perhaps still is) on view at the Bennington Museum, in Bennington, Vermont: now framed. The frame is, or is in the style of, the frame that was on the Alaska Impression painting with which it has been juxtaposed. The current frame on the Alaska Impression is contemporary; and its original frame appears to have been reutilized to display a reverse painting on glass referred to as "Baby with Blue Bird" (see The Magazine Antiques, July 2005, p. 73)–a posthumously completed work: the artist had not painted in the sky. Perhaps the purpose of reusing the Alaska Impression frame was to provide the viewer with a sense of what the painting on glass would have looked like when it was originally displayed. (Both paintings circa date to 1919-1920.)

Brushstrokes 102: Signatures

Rockwell Kent's signature was relatively basic. More often than not, through the late 1910s and early 1920s, the signature appeared with upper case first initials and lower case subsequent letters. Simple enough that a copyist could virtually reproduce the signature. Let's compare Kent's signature on his paintings Mt. Equinox, Winter (Art Institute of Chicago) and the Alaska Impression (fig. 13 and 14) with the signatures on "Vermont Study" and "Adirondack Landscape." (figs. 15 and 16) Now let's expand that comparison to include signatures that are seen on a composition of a city scene (fig. 17 and 18), another of a farmer, with a horse, plowing a field (fig. 19 and 20), and a mountainous winter landscape (fig. 21 and 22), all by unknown artists: Varying signatures, like varying brushstrokes, that pull us further and further away from what we may have believed to be the work of Rockwell Kent (1882-1971).

Proclamations…

According to an essay in Antiques and Fine Art magazine (Rockwell Kent's 'Egypt': Shadow & Light in Vermont, Summer 2012, p. 141), and in variant rewrites such as the Bennington Museum's exhibition catalogue of the same name, and the museum's current display label: "'Vermont Study' is undoubtedly the earliest oil painting that Kent conceived in Vermont and closely relates to the artist's 'impressions' from Alaska, in terms of its physical characteristics, style, technique, and compositional strategies."

When one closely examines the Alaska Impression that is discussed in these publications and label, you can see the "broad and narrow and abrupt, horizontal and vertical brushstrokes" that I mention above–when I speak about the Kent family painting of Mount Equinox. (fig. 23) You do not see the same brushstrokes in "Vermont Study."

In Rockwell Kent: The Mythic and the Modern (Portland Museum of Art. 2005) the author states that "'Vermont Study' shares the same swelling landscape forms and rhythmic ordering of receding planes. It exemplifies how Kent reordered nature in imaginative ways." For the reasons I illustrate above, the relationship between "Vermont Study" and Kent's Vermont paintings entice comparison but do not definitively identify the former work with the latter. These are stylistic comparisons that, as we have read in the case of the Steele Savage drawing mentioned above, require reconsideration.

Coda

When I first saw "Vermont Study," as well as the "Other Kents" that I discuss and/or illustrate, an alarm bell rang out. Perhaps, after 40 years of studying Rockwell Kent's artwork, I have a visceral response to what I see: which takes over and informs what I cannot otherwise explain at the moment.

I can see why people associate some of the "Other Kents" to Rockwell Kent (1882-1971) but I find no compelling evidence to share their belief.

© Scott R Ferris - May 2018

Selected Bibliography:
Amore, Anthony M. The Art of the Con. New York: Palgrave Macmillan Trade, 2015.
Charney, Noah. The Art of Forgery: The Minds, Motives and Methods of Master Forgers. New York: Phaidon Press, 2015.
Mould, Philip. The Art Detective: Fakes, Frauds, and Finds and the Search for Lost Treasures. New York: Viking Penguin, 2010.

Innumerable publications, symposia and exhibitions have tackled related topics.

© Scott R. Ferris

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