Rockwell Kent

The Wood Engravings of Rockwell Kent

Born in Tarrytown, New York in June of 1882, Rockwell Kent was an American painter, graphic artist, writer and adventurer. A profoundly independent and thoughtful man, he acquired through his personal experience and skills a great respect for the dignity of labor and an appreciation of indigenous societies and cross-cultural encounters.

In his formative years, Rockwell Kent spent much of his life in the area of New York City. He attended the Horace Mann School, a private school and member of the Ivy Preparatory School League. In the fall of 1900, Kent studied composition and design at the Art Students League under painter, printmaker and curator Arthur Wesley Dow. He studied in the summers between 1900 and 1902 at one of the first plein air painting schools in America, Shinnecock Hills Summer School of Art, under Impressionist painter William Merritt Chase. 

In the fall of 1902, Kent entered the New York School of Art, founded by William Chase, where he studied under painter Robert Henri, one of the pioneers of the Ashcan School of American realism. He became an apprentice during the summer of 1903 to painter and naturalist Abbott Handerson Thayer, one of the first to write about disruptive patterning to break up an object’s outlines, now known as Thayer’s Law. Kent earned his Bachelor of Arts in Architecture from New York’s Columbia University which prepared him for occasional work as an architectural renderer and carpenter. While at Columbia, Kent developed a close friendship with Carl Zigrosser who later founded New York’s Weyhe Gallery and became Curator of Prints and Drawings at Philadelphia’s Museum of Art.

Rockwell Kent was a transcendentalist and mystic in the tradition of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. He found his inspiration in the austerity and primordial beauty of the wilderness. After his five-year residence on Monhegan Island in Maine, Kent lived for extended periods in Minnesota, Newfoundland, Alaska, Vermont, Tierra del Fuego, Ireland and Greenland. His landscapes and seascapes from these locales show a Symbolist viewpoint of the natural world. Kent published ten memoirs, complete with illustrations, of his travel years. The first of these volumes was the 1920 “Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska”, an account of his and his eldest son’s 1918 fall and winter exploration of Fox Island in Alaska’s Resurrection Bay. 

Kent spent his early years as a painter in New Hampshire where he painted a series of landscapes and several views of Mount Monadnock, the most prominent mountain peak in southern New Hampshire. These works were first shown at the Society of American Artists in a 1904 New York City exhibition. In 1905, he began his five-year stay on Maine’s Monhegan Island; the series of paintings he produced during this period were shown in 1907 at New York’s Clausen Galleries to critical acclaim. The New Hampshire and the Monhegan paintings are the foundation for Kent’s reputation as an early American Modernist painter. 

In the 1920s, Rockwell Kent began a career in illustration and contributed drawings for the covers of many leading magazines. Acknowledging Kent’s success with his 1920 illustrated “Wilderness”, publisher George Palmer Putnam and others incorporated Kent as ‘Rockwell Kent, Inc” to support him in his Vermont homestead while he completed his Alaskan paintings for a 1920 exhibition at New York’s Knoedler Galleries. Approached by publisher Thorne Donnelley for an illustrated version of “Two Years Before the Mast”, Kent suggested he instead illustrate an edition of Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick; or, The Whale”. After researching whaling lore and visiting whaling museums, Kent created two-hundred and eighty illustrations for the 1930 three-volume set of “Moby Dick”, of which one thousand copies were printed by Donnelley’s Lakeside Press. 

In 1927, Kent purchased Asgaard, an Adirondack farmstead in upstate New York, which became his residence and studio for the remainder of his life. In the summer of 1929, he traveled to Greenland on a painting expedition. Determined to paint and write, Kent spent two years between 1931 and 1935 living in a tiny fishing settlement above the Arctic Circle. His paintings from this period include some of the largest and most lauded of his career. Becoming more politically active as World War II drew near, Kent, on commission from the Treasury Department, painted two murals at the Federal Triangle Post Office in Washington DC that supported, in small letters of a Native Alaskan language, the decolonization of Puerto Rico.  

In spite of his critical views on American foreign policy, Rockwell Kent remained America’s foremost draftsman of the sea. He produced a series of pen and ink maritime drawings for the American Export Lines during World War II. In 1946, Kent completed a second series for the Rahr Malting Company, a worldwide supplier to breweries, wineries and distilleries. These works were published in the 1946 “To Thee!: A Toast in Celebration of a Century of America 1847-1947”, a volume Kent wrote and designed to celebrate American freedom and democracy and the important role immigrants play in forming America’s national identity. 

In 1948, Kent was elected to the National Academy of Design as an Associate member; he became a full Academician in 1966. Kent passed away due to a heart attack at his Adirondacks home in March of 1971 at the age of eighty-eight. He had participated in the 1936 formation of the American Artists’ Congress and later served as an officer of the Artists’ Union of America as well as the Artists’ League of America. In 1948, Kent had sought election as a New York Congressman under the American Labor Party banner. 

New York’s Columbia University houses Rockwell Kent’s personal collection of thirty-three hundred working sketches and drawings, most of which were unpublished. The Archives of American Art of the Smithsonian Institution houses an extensive collection of Kent’s correspondence. His work is contained in many private collections and is both housed and exhibited in major museums throughout the United States. 

Top Insert Image: Photographer Unknown, “Rockwell Kent”, circa 1920, Vintage Print

Second Insert Image: Rockwell Kent, “Dan Ward’s Stack, Ireland”, 1926-1927, Oil on Canvas, 86 x 112 cm, Hermitage State Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia

Third Insert Image: Rockwell Kent, “Workers of the World, Unite!”, 1937, Wood Engraving on Paper, Cover Illustration for 1937 Issue of the New Masses, 20.3 x 15.2 cm, Plattsburgh State Art Museum, New York

Fourth Insert Image: Rockwell Kent, “Endless Energy for Limitless Living”, 1946, Oil on Canvas on Board, 111.8 x 121.9 cm, Dayton Art Institute, Dayton, Ohio

Bottom Insert Image: Rockwell Kent, “Mountain Climber”, 1933, Wood Engraving on Paper, 20 x 14.9 cm, Smithsonian American Art Museum

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