On June 21, 1882, Rockwell Kent was born in Tarrytown Heights, NY to Sara Ann Holgate and Rockwell Kent, Sr. Born into a privileged family, the young Kent attended several of the East Coast’s top private schools. When he was 13, he toured Europe with his aunt Josie Baker, who was a well-educated artist.
In 1900, he began his art training at the William Merritt Chase Summer School of Art in Shinnecock, Long Island. In the fall, he enrolled in the architecture program at Columbia University. Just prior to his senior year, he dropped out and enrolled fulltime at the New York School of Art, where he studied under painter Robert Henri (1865-1929).
Following in the footsteps of his mentor, Kent took a painting trip to Monhegan Island, ME in 1905. The island’s vibrant working class attitude and arts community had a lasting effect on Kent. In the following April, he returned to Monhegan and purchased some land. While living there, Kent met his first wife, Kathleen Whiting, a niece of painter Abbott Handerson Thayer (1849-1921). Over the course of the next 13 years, the couple had five children together until their divorce in 1925. Kent married again in 1926 to Frances Lee Higgins, and once more in 1940 to Shirley (“Sally”) Johnstone.
In 1911, he moved to New York with his family and resumed work as an architectural draftsman. He also exhibited fifteen paintings and twenty-four drawings at the Gallery of the Society of Beaux-Architects, New York. In 1914, Kent made his first trip to Newfoundland with his family. There, he worked on a series of paintings and drawings of the area until the summer of 1915.
As World War I waged on, the Kents returned to New York and purchased a home on Staten Island. Kent began to regularly submit cartoons to various magazines, such as Harper’s Weekly and Vanity Fair. His drawings were published under the pseudonym “Hogarth, Jr.” and often satirized popular culture and politics. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Kent made several trips to Alaska, Tierra del Fuego, Greenland, and Copenhagen. Upon each return, he published visionary memoirs and illustrations of his travels to “exotic” lands. Some of his published works include Wilderness: A Journey of Quiet Adventure in Alaksa, Voyaging Southwards from the Strait of Magellan, Salamina and N by E.
During the years leading up to and for the duration of World War II, Kent dedicated much of his time to politics and workers’ rights. Coinciding with these beliefs, he contributed letters to the American Marxist publication The New Masses (1926-1948). Over the next several years, Kent’s political efforts were met with much disdain from the U.S. government. In 1939, he denied charges that he was a member of the Communist party before the McCarthyesque hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Despite his testimony, officials kept a close watch on Kent, ultimately revoking his passport to travel abroad in 1950. Kent appeared before the Permanent Investigations Subcommittee once more in 1953, finally regaining his passport in 1958. In that same year, Kent wrote This is My Own— an account of his confrontations with the U.S. government.
In his later years, Kent traveled around Europe and visited the Soviet Union with his third wife Shirley (“Sally”) Johnstone. He donated a large portion of his personal collection and paintings to the people of the Soviet Union for which he was later awarded the Lenin Peace Prize in 1967. In 1971, Rockwell Kent died at the age of 88 in Plattsburgh, NY.
AN ANALYSIS OF THE ARTIST'S WORK
Rockwell Kent was a free spirited artist and a reverent worshipper of the wilderness. Transcendentalist writings by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman provided thematic ideologies for his works, while his various trips to Alaska, Newfoundland, Greenland, and Tierra del Fuego further provided the material that Kent used to become one of the most influential American painters and illustrators of the early 20th century.
During his years as a student in New York, he was exposed to the works of his contemporaries George Bellows (1882-1925), Man Ray (1890-1976), and Marguerite (1887-1968) and William Zorach (1887-1966). Once in Newfoundland, he began to work in the style of the Symbolists. Though Kent adhered to many of the philosophies of New York’s circle of avant-garde artists, his style never strayed far from that of the Symbolists or German Expressionists. His paintings often include strong lines and figural imagery, most likely derived from his background in architecture.
A deep sense of spirituality is present in many of his paintings. In his Greenland series of the 1920s and 1930s, imaginary beings are placed in idyllic landscapes. Kent often reclaimed this basic compositional arrangement for many of the government commissioned murals he executed and for his work in print advertising (Wien 109). Furthermore, his brush and India ink drawings portray close similarities to the relief etchings of the late 18th and early 19th-century British artist William Blake. As in many of Blake’s illustrations, Kent’s numerous designs often suggest the intricate relationship between the universe, mankind, and the Divine (Wien 51). In paintings such as The Fire Bird (1927), a monumental-sized cherubim-like figure radiates in the heavens above a seaside coast, while a god-like figure hovers over a small church in the painting Russian Mass (1928).
Kent’s career is often compared to that of his contemporary Marsden Hartley’s as both artists were also published writers and often painted works filled with philosophical and spiritual concerns (Wien 48). Coincidently, they also struggled at times to find a place in society. Hartley never quite fit in due to his homosexuality, while Kent fell out of favor because of his associations with pro-Communist organizations.
Closer to the end of his life, the US establishment’s failure to accept Kent’s personal ideologies only grew more intense, ultimately leading to a lack of support for his art. As a result, Kent donated over forty of his own paintings to public collections in Russia, the Ukraine, and Armenia (Wien 79). Today, Kent is best remembered for his position as a top book illustrator during the 1920s and 1930s. Some of his most triumphal masterpieces include illustrations for Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Voltaire’s Candide, Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, and illustrations for his own manuscripts.
AWARDS & AFFILIATIONS
1967 Lenin Peace Prize
Academy of Fine Art, USSR (honorary member)
American Artists Congress
Art League of America
National Institute of Arts and Letters
Union of American Artists
Woodstock Art Association
Art Institute of Chicago
Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University, IL
Brigham Young University Museum of Art, UT
Cleveland Museum of Art, OH
Crocker Art Museum, CA
Currier Gallery of Art, NH
Dayton Art Institute, OH
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, CA
Harvard University Art Museums Database, MA
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C.
Mead Art Museum at Amherst College, MA
Montana Museum of Art and Culture, Missoula
National Museum of Wildlife Art, Jackson Hole, Wyoming
New York Public Library
Plattsburgh State University Art Museum, New York
Portland Museum of Art, ME
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery at Scripps College, CA
Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, New Paltz, NY
Sheldon Art Gallery, Lincoln, NE
Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.
Southern Alleghenies Museum, PA
Terra Foundation for the Arts, Chicago, IL
The Art Gallery at the University of Maryland
The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.
University of Alaska Museum Fine Arts Collection
University of Kentucky Art Museum
Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota, MN
Westmoreland Museum of American Art, Greensburg, PA
1882 Born on June 25 in Tarrytown Heights, NY
1900 Attends William Merritt Chase Summer School of Art. Enrolls in Columbia University and studies architecture.
1903 Leaves Columbia and attends New York School of Art full-time
1905 Moves to Monhegan Island, ME, which remains his permanent address until 1910
1908 Marries Kathleen Whiting
1909 Son, Rockwell Kent III, is born
1910 Teaches at Monhegan Summer School of Art. Travels to Newfoundland
1911 Daughter Kathleen is born. Son Karl is born. Moves to Greenwich Village
1913 Participates in Armory Show. Daughter Clara is born.
1914 Moves to New Foundland
1915 Son Karl dies. Daughter Hildegarde (Barbara) born. Family moves to Staten Island, NY.
1916 Begins to submit drawings to Harper’s Weekly and Vanity Fair under the pseudonym “Hogarth, Jr.”
1918 Gains early membership in the Whitney Studio Club, NY. Travels to Alaska.
1919 Returns to New York. Establishes Rockwell Kent, Inc. (dissolved in 1922).
1920 Son Gordon is born
1922 Travels to Tierra del Fuego
1924 First retrospective held at Wildenstein Galleries, NY. Travels with family to Southern France.
1925 Divorces Kathleen Whiting
1926 Marries Frances Lee Higgins. Moves to Greenwich Village
1927 Moves to Woodstock, NY and works as editor for Creative Arts magazine.
1929 Sails to Greenland and on to Copenhagen
1930 Completes cartoons for ceiling of Cape Cinema in Cape Cod
1932 Returns to New York
1934 Departs to Copenhagen. Esquire magazine published his writings about travels through Greenland.
1935 Returns to New York and travels to Alaska for the preparation of a government commissioned mural.
1936 Travels to Puerto Rico to prepare mural commissioned by U.S. Treasury Department.
1937 Completes two government commissioned murals. Visits Rio de Janeiro
1939 Denies charge of Communist Party membership before the House Un-American Activities Commitee
1940 Divorces Frances Lee. Marries Shirley “Sally” Johnstone
1944 Named president of International Workers Order. Paints commissioned mural for the Air Transport Association
1947 Visits Monhegan Island
1948 Runs an unsuccessful campaign for Congress in New York State
1949 Over the next two years, he travels across Europe to attend meetings that promote world peace
1950 Kent’s passport to travel abroad is revoked by U.S. Department of State
1951-3 Paints on Monhegan Island and Travels to the Canadian Rockies
1953 Appears before the Permanent Investigations Subcommittee and when asked about memberships in Communist Party. Begins auto-biography.
1958 Regains passport. Travels with wife to Ireland, London, Paris, Switzerland and the Soviet Uninon
1960 Gives the people of the Soviet Union a substantial collection of his work
1971 Dies on March 13, in Plattsburgh, NY
1. Falk, Peter Hastings ed. Who Was Who in American Art: 1564-1975. Vol. II. Madison, CT: Sound View Press, 1999.
2. Wien, Jake Milgram. Rockwell Kent: The Mythic and the Modern. Manchester: Hudson Hills Press, 2005.
3. Kent, Rockwell and Carl Zigrosser. Rockwellkentiana. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1933.
4. Kent, Rockwell. This is My Own. New York: Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, 1940.
5. Traxel, David. An American Saga: The Life and Times of Rockwell Kent. New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1980.
1969 Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, ME
1966 Larcada Gallery, NY
1966 Harbor Gallery, Cold Spring Harbor, NY
1960 Academy of Art, Moscow
1958 Hermitage Museum, Leningrad
1957 Pushkin Museum, Moscow
1956 Gropper Art Galleries, Cambridge, MA
1955 Art of Today Gallery, NY
1945 Stockholm, Sweden
1942 Stendahl Gallery, Los Angeles
1942 A.B. Clossom, Jr., Company, Cincinnati, OH
1941 Harlow, Keppel, and Company, NY
1937 Gallery of Modern Masters, Washington, D.C.
1937 Rochester Public Library, NY
1937 Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts, NY
1934 Macbeth Gallery, NY
1934 Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto
1934 The Print Rooms, Los Angeles
1934 Milwaukee Art Institute, MN
1933 Art Institute of Chicago, IL
1930-32 Kennedy and Company, NY
1930 R.R. Donnelley and Company, Lakeside Press, Chicago, IL
1928 East West Gallery, San Francisco, CA
1928-29, 1932, 1937 Pynson Printers, NY
1925 Philadelphia Art Alliance, PA
1925 New York Public Library, Tompkins Square Branch
1924, 1925, 1927, 1942 Wildenstein Galleries, NY
1924, 1926-27, 1930 Weyhe Gallery, NY
1924 Arts Club, Art Institute of Chicago, IL
1924, 1939, 1942 Department of Fine Arts, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, PA
1921 Retrospective Exhibition of American Art, NY
1919, 1920 M. Knoedler and Company, NY
1918 John Wanamaker department store, NY
1917, 1936, 1941 Society of Independent Artists, NY
1917 Daniel Gallery, NY
1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, San Francisco
1914 National Arts Club, NY
1913 Public Library, Winona, MN
1913 International Exhibition of Modern (Armory Show), NY
1911 Gallery of the Society of Beaux-Arts Architects, NY
1910 Exhibition of Independent Artists, NY
1908-39 Corcoran Gallery, Washington D.C.
1908 Old Harmonie Club, NY
1907 Clausen Galleries, NY
1904-11, 1925-26, 1932-38 Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, PA