Friday, June 8, 2012

The Enigmatic Grandeur of Rockwell Kent

Rockwell Kent (1882–1971), who grew up in New York City, was a writer, architect, adventurer, sailor, family man and a social activist. He studied art with several influential painters like  Arthur Wesley Dow at the Art Students League, William Merritt Chase and Robert Henri at the New York School of Art, and he apprenticed with Abbott Handerson Thayer. He also did undergraduate studies in architecture at Columbia University .
After his studies, Kent helped organize the Exhibition of Independent Artists in 1910. He did illustrations from 1912-1916 for a radical journal called The Masses. He also admired the writings of Thoreau and Emerson, and he found inspiration in the beauty of wilderness so much that he lived in Newfoundland , Alaska ,Tierra del Fuego, Ireland , Greenland and Asgaard Farm, in Au Sable Forks, New York. While he lived in Alaska, he spent a winter at Fox Island where he published a series of illustrations called Wilderness. From the 1920s through the 1950s, Kent established a reputation as an engraver, lithographer and illustrator of books. His bold and enigmatic images were seen in Vanity Fair, New York Tribune, Harper's Weekly, and the original Life magazine,  and he is most famously known for having illustrated Moby Dick.
Kent shifted his priorities to progressive politics and in 1939 he became increasingly active with a Communist organization called the Harlem Lodge of the International Workers Order (IWO), he served as the organizations’ President from 1944-53.  He was the first American artist to have work exhibited in the Soviet Union, and he donated several hundred of his paintings and drawings to the Soviet peoples. He became an honorary member of the Soviet Academy of Fine Arts, and later received the Lenin Peace Prize in 1967. A portion of the Lenin Prize monies was awarded to women and children in North and South Vietnam. 
Kent's increasing support for a Soviet-American fiendship affected his stature as an artist, and his popularity declined in the postwar years. He fell out of favor with the American public and his sympathies about the Cold War era made him a target of the US government. As with many people subject to Senator Joseph McCarthy's scrutiny, Kent was blacklisted and his US passport was revoked. 

When Kent died, The New York Times described him as "... a thoughtful, troublesome, profoundly independent, odd and kind man who made an imperishable contribution to the art of bookmaking in the United States."
Kent often portrays an enigmatic solitary, iconic figure in some form of repose or contemplation of the grandeur of Nature; caught in some spiritual/physical conflict, even pathos. Based upon the twists of his own life, it would be easy to assimilate how these figures were manifestations of himself. The interesting thing is how he does it with economy of means. His lines are crisp, clean and while his images are for the most part a small scale, the figures emanate out of their confinement and project a grand, imposing posture. One relates easily with his compositions, which call the viewer and his figures in these images to be a part of ‘the infinite’. Nothing could be more beautiful than his white, Modernist Deco-influenced figures against the dense, black vastness in which he makes them dwell and fight to maneuver.
Kent's images were seen as increasingly radical and his creative style was overshadowed by the new modernist art movement.  When Abstract Expressionism became popular, it pushed his  work further into obscurity.
The Archives of American Art holds Kent’s correspondence repository, while the Philadelphia Museum of Art has one of the more comprehensive collections of Rockwell Kent prints, drawings, and illustrated books, (collected by Kent’s longtime friend, Carl Zigrosser).

For further reading, Kent’s autobiography, called It's Me O Lord, was published in 1955.


  1. Thanks for posting this. Kent, along with Lynd Ward and Helen West Heller are among my favorite Amercian artists. I have two websites you might be interested in: artists who signed and attended the 1st American Artists' Congress, Kent was a signer and organizer and the other about Helen West Heller an amazing contemporary of Kent. Enjoy

  2. Opps! I forget to add the URLs
    Amercian Artists' congress
    Helen West Heller