(Tarrytown Heights, New York, 1882 - 1971)
Rockwell Kent was a painter/printmaker who trained in New York in the early twentieth century. His style was highly personal and deliberate, with an emphasis on correct scale, draughtsmanship and accuracy of detail. Also educated as an architect, he was a meticulous craftsman, and his works reflect his highly cerebral approach to the themes reflected in his art.
Born in Tarrytown, New York, Kent showed early promise as an artist, and accompanied a like-minded aunt to Europe when he was thirteen years old. His aunt provided the young man the benefits of travel, plus the experience of European art and architecture, which inspired him to pursue coursework in mechanical drawing upon his return to secondary school. (1)
Kent received formal professional art training at the Shinnecock Hills Summer Art School of William Merritt Chase on Long Island, and later at the New York School of Art with Robert Henri and Kenneth Hayes Miller. At his parent’s urging, however, he enrolled in the School of Architecture at Columbia University, and won a four-year scholarship. Although he excelled at his architectural studies, he was engaged primarily by the courses in architectural rendering, and, despite his parent’s hopes, his primary goal was to become not an architect, but an artist. He left architecture school in his fourth term and was given a scholarship by Chase to attend the New York Art School. Additionally, he spent some time with Abbott Handerson Thayer at his studio in Dublin, New York. At the urging of Robert Henri, he eventually went to Monhegan Island off the coast of Maine in June of 1905, and discovered his calling as a painter of wilderness and marine scenes.
Subsequently, Kent’s life and art were defined by a series of travels, as he visited remote areas of the globe, drawing and collecting subjects for paintings and for the graphic arts for which he is perhaps better known. In 1914 he went to Newfoundland, and in 1918 he and his eight-year-old son spent seven months living in a remote area of Alaska. He also visited Tierra del Fuego in South America, and finally spent several highly productive periods painting in Greenland. These and other destinations allowed Kent to develop not just as an artist, but also as an author—he wrote a number of accounts of his wilderness adventures and in most cases illustrated them with subjects he had developed while in residence.
With its purity of line and hard edge focus, the artist’s style was in service to a strong narrative sense, and his attempts to articulate his spiritual beliefs. While he was not religious in the conventional sense, he was a seeker who mined his experiences of wilderness and nature for clues to the meaning of man’s existence. His compositions are filled with symbolic references to a mystic’s understanding of man’s place in the universe, and the boundaries that are created by the individual’s limited experience of place and time. (2)
Kent achieved significant success as a painter in the 1930s, but it was as a graphic artist that he found lasting recognition. This satisfied the artist, as in later life he held liberal and leftist political views that supported the idea of an art accessible to the masses. That prints were multiples available to a wider audience at modest cost was a tenant of his philosophy, and he wrote in 1939, “It is now realized, as perhaps never before, that not only does art properly concern itself with expression of universal values but that its appeal must be directed to humanity at large. In the new spirit that has come to art, no form of art can be more effective than printmaking. It is the art of multiple originals.” (3)
While Kent produced some experimental etchings, engravings and other forms of prints, he focused his efforts on lithography, wood engraving and woodcut. A number of the prints were intended as illustrations books he authored about his life and travels—Wilderness (1920) and Voyaging (1924) for example— and others were commissioned for advertising purposes.
Kent’s traditional training and his narrative style were substantially out of vogue beginning in about the 1940s, and especially so with the rise of Abstract Expressionism, thus while his printmaking and advertising career flourished, there was no significant market for his paintings. After a period of political and social activism in the 1960s, the artist focused on his rural life at his farm in the Adirondack Mountains until his death in 1971.
(1) Bibliographical information is taken from Fridolf Johnson, “Rockwell Kent, the Restless,” in ‘An Enkindled Eye’: The Paintings of Rockwell Kent, exh. cat., by Richard V. West, (Santa Barbara, CA: Santa Barbara Museum of Art) 1985, pp. 9-11.
(2) See Dan Burne Jones, The Prints of Rockwell Kent: A Catalogue Raisonne. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1975, p. ix.
(3) As quoted in Jones, p. xii.