Early Work of Rockwell Kent

by Peggy Byrne | History

Throughout 2019, in celebration of Adirondack Life‘s 50th anniversary, we’re sharing an article per week from our archives—one for each year since 1970. First up is an interview with the acclaimed artist Rockwell Kent, by Peggy Byrne. Byrne was such a frequent contributor in the magazine’s early days that, according to her son, Jeffery, the editors encouraged her to write some articles under the pen name Philomena Hogarth.

Take a living legend.
Set him in a cup of mountains above Au­ Sable Forks in the Adirondacks at Asgaard Farm—Home of the Gods. This is Rockwell Kent, il­lustrator, painter, writer, designer, engraver, architect—a man whose eighty-seven years seem less a burden to him than a limit—for he wonders how much time is left him to paint and write and draw. And indeed it seems that the al­most immortal living legend in the home of the immortal gods has energy for another eighty-seven years of prolific output.

Striding through the new house he designed and built in six months after his old home burned, he points, describes, infers the wonders of his newest creation. His cool eyes under the bushy eyebrows look everywhere, see everything, full of imagination and alert intelligence. Mentally he hangs pictures on the new white walls, fills the empty cup­boards with china—”all that china, so much china—I used to design it, you know.”

His long fingers whirl through the air as he points to the caribou antlers he brought from Green­land years ago, and now has mounted over the front door—a hoary welcome to the visitor.

The small, wiry man bounces across the grass, crackling now with red and gold leaves, to the temporary quarters at the end of the barn where he and his wife Sally are living until the new house is finished. In a pandemo­nium of books, letters, coffee cups and treasures rescued from the fire, Mr. Kent is ready to talk about his trip to Brunswick, Maine, for the opening of a huge exhibition: Rockwell Kent—The Early Years.

In the warm Maine August of 1969 Bowdoin College gathered about sixty of Rockwell Kent’s early works from galleries and private collections all over Amer­ica, paintings and graphics which ranged in date from 1906 to 1933, and in locale from New Hamp­shire to Monhegan Island, Maine, to Newfoundland, Greenland, Ire­land, Alaska, France, Tierra del Fuego, Vermont, and the Adiron­dacks. The sheer size of the show, the many enormous canvases, the astonishing vigor of color and variety of subject matter—over­whelming. What percentage of all his pictures did this show repre­sent? How many had Mr. Kent painted altogether?

“Many hundreds. Countless hundreds. I don’t know where most of them are, that’s the trouble. Sold to dealers who didn’t want to say where they went. Occasionally one comes to auction and it’s like all the others nobody cares about—dirtier and dirtier. And I buy it, and clean it up and repaint it and resell it for ten or twenty times the price I paid for it. A few paintings are in American museums. I know exactly where eighty of my best paintings are—in the Soviet Union where all the people are interested in art. They hang in the major mu­seums there—the Hermitage, in Leningrad, the Pushkin Mu­seum in Moscow, and in other major museums.”

But many of the paintings in the show at Bowdoin came from American museums where they are appreciated and well-cared for—college collections, the Met­ropolitan Museum, Cleveland, Philadelphia, New Britain, Bos­ton, Worcester—

“But—But—” Mr. Kent sput­tered angrily, “the painting Down To The Sea, which I wanted for the show was in such deplorable condition that the Brooklyn Museum couldn’t lend it—it needed to be re­stored. I wrote protesting that such a thing was allowed to happen to paintings in this country, and they replied that pictures by Sargent, Chase, Bel­lows, and Eakins had suffered the same fate. The Museum simply hasn’t the money to re­store them.”

Back to the subject in hand: the exhibition of Mr. Kent’s earliest paintings. Which of them had he been glad to see again—which were his favorites?

“The pictures are like my chil­dren—I was glad to see them all again. I had no special favorite—that’s like asking a father which of his children he loves best. But perhaps I was most pleased to see Toilers of the Sea again. The big black rock. I was myself a lobsterman just then, when I painted it, living on Monhegan for several years at Lobster Cove … “

(Perhaps, I thought, this ex­plains the physical strength of this man—the barrel chest, the strong arms akimbo, the sturdy stance of a man used to boats, row­ing, the sea …)

The big black rock, painted in 1907, is intensely dramatic. And it is a signpost which includes the news of Kent’s artistic heritage in the continuing school of American realistic painting (Eakins, Homer, Henri, and more recently, Wyeth) as well as the direction his later pictures were to go. It was painted at about the same time as the less dramatic canvases, Winter—Monhegan Island and Maine Coast, with all the same feeling for mood and weather, composi­tion and color. Here is strict atten­tion to realistic detail which mirror Kent’s academic training, coupled with the beginning of a strong interest in the inner shape of the landscape which would appear in the later paintings as a stripping off of the trappings of nature. The Bowdoin College exhibi­tion presents a clear demonstra­tion of Kent’s search for the bare bones of Nature, and for the sim­plest, toughest, and most dramatic terms in which to paint what he has seen.

“No artist,” Kent wrote in Rock­wellkentiana (1933), “ever looked for material, whether it was mountains for a picture or a love affair for a book. Art is the by-product of one’s enthu­siasm for life … “

But here, in the exhibition, is proof of voyages to some of the starkest landscapes on earth—Greenland, Tierra del Fuego, Alaska—as if to say that Kent had indeed gone—enthusiastically—to look for material, the bleakest, hardest material he could find. And in the process he developed, as the show clearly illustrates, a style which simplifies and re­duces Nature, in color and line, to its most basic elements, often with all the subtlety of a ski poster. Rocks, icebergs, mountains become stripped of detail to assume monumental strength. Human fig­ures, similarly stripped of per­sonal details, become symbols of the heroic human condition in for­midable landscapes.

A few years earlier, the Impres­sionists in Europe had been re­discovering Rembrandt’s tech­nique of showing the world through the play of light on its various surfaces. Kent, on the con­trary, was concerned with finding the basic shape and the hard drama of the outline of our planet. And as his world came clearer to him, so also did his palette ex­plode with the brilliant primary blues, yellows, whites and blacks that are typical of his later work, such as The Trapper and Green­land Gothic.

“Oh, no—no! There’s no differ­ence in style at all (between my early paintings and the later ones). All the same. I painted them all—so they’re all the same style.”

But we saw there in the show the development, from the first sensitive, tentative, somber be­ginnings to the stark sharp simpli­fication of Nature blazing with color and contrasts.

For a time in his late thirties Kent was using the human figure as the personification of natural forces, to dominate the landscape, as in the painting Voyagers ( 1923). He evidently had in mind a kind of heroic idealism, clearly influ­enced by his admiration for Wil­liam Blake, and he based several later illustrations and prints on this idea. As for House of Dread?

“I painted that in Newfound­land, and I’ll never, never sell it. I’m glad it had already gone to Bowdoin for the exhibition and wasn’t burned in the fire. But the best picture I ever painted—the one I never wanted to part with—was a pic­ture of my wife Sally lying in the grass on Monhegan. It used to hang over the fireplace in my house, and was burned in the fire.”

Could Mr. Kent go back to Mon­hegan with his wife, and paint it again?

“I couldn’t. She was a different girl then, and I was a lot young­er. I couldn’t.” Regrets, disap­pointment, resolution were all in his voice.

What emerged from the exhibi­tion was the sense of Kent the designer, the illustrator, the drafts­man of formidable accomplish­ment. His development in the course of thirty years illustrated at Bowdoin, from the lovely re­alism of Monhegan to the sharp drama of Greenland Gothic fore­shadows the woodcuts and draw­ings of the 1930’s and the later book illustrations and Christmas cards.

“Well, you know in America painting is an awful way to sup­port a family—the Artist can’t do it. I’ve done a lot of commer­cial art—I used to be qualified as an architect-took architec­ture in college. Commercial art is the only art that has paid me enough to live on. These things were all pot boilers—I wanted to paint most of all. And this is true of the vast majority of American artists.”

Here was no apology, only ex­planation. The china, the Christ­mas cards, the illustrations for Moby Dick and Candide had clearly been meal tickets for the Kents—as necessary as they were successful. Studying them, we began to see what an enormous influence this man had on the course of American popular art—­from calendars and posters to Christmas cards. For in the 1930’s our American commercial artists began to discover and imitate Rockwell Kent’s view of a world without frills—reduced in line and color to its elemental design.

At the beginning of the inter­view Mrs. Kent’s typewriter was a pattering undertone in a nearby room.

“Yes,” Mr. Kent said, “I have written many books, and now I’m adding fifteen years to my autobiography—This Is My Own. This is the book in which I express myself most forcefully. And Sally is typing it for me as I write. I hope to have the whole published as one book.” He turned then and spoke to his wife: “Sally, will you bring your diary?”

Mrs. Kent came in from her workroom holding a small box gently in her hands. “Look,” she said, “someone had the good sense to save it from the fire. See how charred it is, all the edges burned. But still readable. It’s a great help with the book—it’s a record of all our trips abroad.”

“I haven’t quite finished the first draft—and then the rewrit­ing—and Sally trying to keep up with the typing.”

Would Mr. Kent illustrate his book, like the others, with chapter headings and all?

“Oh yes—but with brush and ink drawings, not with engrav­ings. I haven’t time enough left for that—it requires hard, con­centrated work on something so minute in scale, and I haven’t time nor eyesight left for such work. But after the book is fin­ished, I’ll paint again.”

Outside once more, as the first cold fall wind blew across Asgaard Farm, Mr. Kent pointed to the view from his new house:

“That’s Whiteface, yes, you bet!” He shook hands briskly and returned to his work.

And Whiteface was at Bowdoin—in one of the most memorable pictures in the whole exhibition, Adirondacks. It was painted shortly after the Kents moved to Asgaard Farm in 1928—painted close by, with the sense of the great loneliness of the deserted upland farms, the sense of any and all seasons, and the sense of brooding clouds over high mead­ows, and a finger of sunlight split­ting the sky to highlight the enor­mous view.

A very private view of the world, Mr. Rockwell (living leg­end) Kent’s. Cool and selective and unwinking … and unforget­tably dramatic.

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