Specialist in the artwork of Rockwell Kent (1882-1971)
 
Essays on Rockwell Kent
A Painter of Monhegan appeared in the exhibition catalogue, Rockwell Kent on Monhegan (Monhegan Museum, Monhegan Island, ME. 1998).


Rockwell Kent: A Painter of Monhegan


Probably the most difficult and daring attempt of an artist has been to paint the sun itself blazing down upon the sea and islands, in an hour some of the time midway between noon and the time for setting. Men have painted sunlight before, and men have painted the dawn and the sunset, but no one has painted the actual blazing disc of the late afternoon sun before it becomes redder and more seeable. Mr. Kent has succeeded, to a large degree, in his attempt to paint such a sun...
John Cournos "Rockwell Kent's Democratic Ideas on Life and Art." Philadelphia Record. Sunday, 23 October 1910.


John Cournos was writing about the act of painting this natural phenomenon but he could just as well have been describing a spiritual encounter or communing with nature, as Rockwell Kent might have defined it. In the composition Late Afternoon (4)1 we see that Kent has focused on the glowing yellow-white ball of the sun. The image, frozen in his mind as if captured in the lens of a camera, reflects the sun's curvilinear form as a partial arch before it. All other forms around the sun's epicenter are silhouettes of liquid color, bleeding together like molten emotion. In losing perceived focus Kent gains a spiritual focus through the clarity of light. He states, "The greatest, most powerful, thoughts that nature arouses in us are not of herself but of human life and art should be a record of these thoughts not merely of the physical beauty of the scene."2

In Fishermen's Beach (8)3 Kent depicts two oil-skin garbed fishermen appearing languid as they lug their days catch and drag their dory onto the shore of a mist-blanketed Monhegan. In the study for Toilers of the Sea (6) we witness two dories carrying teams of fishermen to their harvest. The oarsmen heave to battle the waves or lock the tholepins to steady the boat as their co-laborers haul in the traps. We see in these works that Kent envied the Island laborers and their relationship to the natural world. He saw his "own thin wrists, [his] artist's hands" and "as though for the first time" he saw his "work in true perspective and felt its triviality."4

Monhegan was, quite literally, the landscape in which Kent "came of age." It was on the Island during his early stays that Kent wrestled with the question of "God," the purpose of human exsistence, and the meaning of his own work. From the perspective of a devout vegetarian Kent also struggled with the relationship between humans and other creatures in the Kingdom Animalia. He recorded his analysis of these matters throughout 1906 (in essay form) under such titles as "The True Life: Charity," "The False Life," and "Men and Animals: Physical Labor & Physical Need." Kent's contemplations on God and Nature approached those of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. To understand his purpose in his life he found humility and direction in the writings of Leo Tolstoi and Walt Whitman. Though Kent came to Monhegan in search of subject matter for painting, he felt a "moral necessity" to be "Where he could live the life he wished." Not because the Island was picturesque but, for him as man and artist, it held "a vaster sky, a greater sea." "Character," Kent said, "is formed out of life, and art is an expression of a live personality; that sort of art has a truer ring that any other art."5

By all prior accounts—including those of the artist himself—Kent first appeared on Monhegan in June 1905. Recent evidence, however—an Island painting dated 1904—suggests that he arrived the previous autumn, perhaps on a prefatory visit.6 Regardless of his actual date of arrival, Kent set foot on the island eager to explore every headland and cove as well as himself. "Before a man tries to express anything to the world, "Robert Henri wrote, "he must recognize in himself an individual, a new one, very distinct from others."7 While Kent was still finding his way on Monhegan he reflected, "My road to life was this. It began with the study of painting... I honored fine brush work and good drawing and good composition and a mysterious something called 'quality'... I loved the old masters, Hals and Velasquez because they truly had all these... I believed nature was the material out of which the artist created things of beauty and I believed in art for arts sake... Then there came doubts. They came because being a healthy normal person I knew as I stood in the face of nature that never could I hope to tell the joy that was in me because I was too young to know better... "8 Art became, for Kent, an "outgrowth of some grand, heartfelt, human idea about life."9

Late Afternoon is a paradigm for the soul searching Kent was experiencing. It exemplifies his appreciation for the beauty of nature, yet respects his belief that nature arouses in each of us the questions surrounding our existence. Kent's use of light—specifically the setting sun—in a more spiritual sense, signaled a parting from his mentors and, to some degree, aligned him with the luminists. Though numerous examples exist, Late Afternoon shares kinship with Ralph Blakelock's The Sun, Serene, Sinks into the Slumberous Sea (Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, MA), Frederic Church's Cotopaxi (Reading Public Museum and Art Gallery), and Seneca Ray Stoddard's silverprint photograph, Little Tupper Lake, Adirondacks (The Library of Congress).10 Kent was obviously captivated by this theme as evidenced by such period canvases as Maine Fishing Village, Evening and Sun on the Sea (both Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts). Though his use of this form of expressive motif never waned, it was not matched per canvas until the artist paid homage to the setting sun over Mount Whiteface in paintings like Evening Red (View from Asgaard) (Pushkin)11 and Haybales, Evening (private collection).

Kent's use of the sunset motif, especially when depicted reflecting on water, may also be interpreted to represent his sexuality. In the painting "Calm and Free" (Maine Coast) (State Hermitage Museum)12 the ray from the mid-afternoon sun reflects on the ocean as a phallus attempting to penetrate the rocky coastline. Even more obvious in its sexual imagery is the Alaska composition, Into the Sun (Bowdoin College Museum of Art).13 In this later composition the bolder, almost vibrant shaft of light is enwrapped by the curvaceous protrusions into Resurrection Bay, symbolic of the intimate contact between male and female. Kent's use of this motif recalls Summer Night's Dream (The Voice) (Munch-Museet, Oslo), The Voice (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), and The Dance of Life (Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo) by Edvard Munch. In each of Munch's paintings we see that a "shaft of moonlight is placed as a phallic symbol on the fjord" to represent "awakening eroticism."14

Although this similarity exist in certain paintings by Kent and Munch, one should not infer that these artists influenced each other. Kent stated that "the one absolute quality that man and his work can possess is personal integrity; and that integrity is abhorent of influence as nature is of a vacuum."15 His post-student paintings of 1905-1910 (which predominate in this exhibition) document an archetypal American-modernist idiom. Without forgoing his realist proclivities he has created land and seascapes constructed of modeled planes. In this sense Kent's painting is a precursor to Arthur Dove and, a later admirer of his work, Fairfield Porter.

Reviews of Kent's early exhibitions include such adjectives as, "rough," "crude," "harsh," and "stark" to describe his paintings. These same critics drew comparisons between Kent and the painter to whom virtually all turn of the century American artists were measured, Winslow Homer. Kent's "rocky formations are mineral to the core," 16 one reviewer stated, and his seas, driving. Like many of Homer's seascapes Kent's compositions are as elemental as nature itself.

The paintings Harbor, Monhegan (1) and Monhegan Headlands (2) are clear examples of this raw, simplistic manner. Harbor, Monhegan (1905) reflects the "primeval quality of the Island." 17 It possesses a certain primitivism in its elimination of details for the sake of basic form and energy. The abstractions found in Kent's early Monhegan canvases provide a link between Homer and the modern American art period. Harbor, Monhegan is in itself a link between two other canvases depicting the harbor: The painterly hand of the study, "Seascape with Rocky Shore," (Conservation Center of the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University)18 and the sharper definition of Kent's maturing style as seen in the 1907 painting, Pollack Seining (Columbus Museum of Art).  Monhegan Headlands (also of 1905) takes simplicity one step further through the vehicle of evening light and the subtle blending effects of shadow. In this composition the elements land, sea, and sky are compartmentalized into three predominant color masses. A reviewer for the New York Art Bulletin, commenting on Kent's 1907 exhibition at Clausen Galleries, offered a description of the painting Evening Stillness which may very well refer to Monhegan Headlands. The author wrote, " 'Evening Stillness' has a delightful glow of light and a graceful flow of lines where the rocks and water meet."

Monhegan Headlands in particular provides evidence of one approach Kent used to develop his paintings. In this work we see underpainting that is not always consistent with the message created by the surface paint. The brush strokes were applied to fill the canvas with color and in this case, random texture. This method contradicted the teachings of Henri who felt that strokes that do not tell a tale are distracting, and should be eliminated. 19 Kent's underpainting also suggests a build-up of momentum as the artist rapidly laid out the elements of his composition.

Clarity through rapidity of stroke is evident in Rocks, Monhegan (3), Headlands and Sea (9) and especially the small oil study Manana (5). The resulting impression is that Kent mastered these compositions in one sitting. The preparation to the canvas was minimal and all other brushstrokes were applied to "tell the tale." Manana, with all certainty, was created in the moment of inspiration. It was this type of painting that stirred James Huneker of the New York Sun to write that Kent's "paint is laid on by an athlete of the brush."20 Manana, as identified by Kent's first wife Kathleen on the verso of this particleboard, was brought to fruition in the larger canvas Manana Island and served as the inspiration for another period canvas, Afternoon on the Sea (The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco).

An early photograph of Rocks, Monhegan (Kent Papers, Archives)21 attest to the decisive yet fluid strokes of the original, unaltered painting. The detailing that was later applied to the foreground does not detract from our sense of solid rock and turbulent sea. Though this painting bears compositional similarities to like scenes by Henri, John Sloan, Edward Hopper, George Bellows and others, the palette and execution is distinctly Kent's.

Headlands and Sea is one in a series of paintings in which Kent captures the "dignity of form"22 that he saw in Blackhead. Rendered from virtually the same perspective, these compositions are explorations into the effect of changing atmospheric conditions. This idea, perhaps inspired by Kent's mentors Chase and Henri, has it roots in the works of the Impressionists (especially Monet) whom the masters brought to life in their classrooms. Whereas Monet's series of haystacks, poplars, and the facade of Rouen Cathedral were studies of "uninterrupted changes of light on various motifs,"23 Kent broadened his observations to include movement. Regardless of these differences, each artist strove to "get a true impression of a certain aspect of nature"24

Kent's later use of variant titles seems redundant when juxtaposing the opposing atmospheric conditions depicted in Headlands and Sea and Blackhead (formerly of the George P. Putnam collection)25 The late afternoon sunlight presented in Headlands and Sea (a.k.a. Monhegan Headland, Evening) divides the canvas into upper and lower planes of light and shadow. Furthermore the light blends once separate forms into solid mass, obliterating detail. The action of the waves is suggested by the bouyancy of pure white pigment, especially as it is used in drawing both abrupt and sinous lines that represent crests. In contrast, the painting Blackhead (a.k.a. Monhegan Headland, Morning) is aptly defined in more linear terms by its exposure to direct sunlight. A much calmer sea exposes teeth-like rocks, and sharp shadows delineate a multiplicity of crevices in the rocky headland.

As I discuss in depth in my book Rockwell Kent's Forgotten Landscapes, the artist once kept a system of recording his paintings in the form of tacking margin titles: Headlands and Sea possesses such a title on it's top tacking margin . I also discuss Kent's frequent use of multiple titles. This painting, for example, has also been referred to as Monhegan Headlands (Maine) and Marine, which can be confusing because these are titles shared by several other Monhegan paintings.

The canvas Monhegan Coast, Winter (7) was descriptively titled "Lone Tree & Ocean, Winter" by Kent's mother when she owned it. Shortly after Jamie Wyeth acquired this painting (and the house Kent had built for his mother) the two artists shared correspondence. In Kent's letter he states that "The picture was painted from the steep hillside overlooking Gull Rock..."27 The top of Gull Rock, discernable lower right, is pocketed with snow characteristic of the painterly drifts rendered in Winter, Monhegan Island (The Metropolitan Museum of Art). A later view of this formation—Young Spruces: Maine Coast (The State Hermitage Museum)—also scans the top of the rock, though from a variant perspective.

The tree in this composition appears to have been rendered by a method Kent utilized during his student days and which he described in this manner: "the trees are the result not of having tried to paint trees but of merely leaving out sky in patches that more or less resembled trees and then filling in these left-out spaces with an approximation of tree color."28 Adding to this effect is the new paint Kent applied to the canvas—especially to the sea around the tree—when he restored the canvas after it was returned to him following his mother's death. As a general rule Kent would re-sign a painting after he reworked it, which may account for the double signature. Another reason given Wyeth for the second signature was that the frame covered the original, instigating the request that the artist re-sign in a higher location.

This theme of solitary object or figure is one that Kent returned to throughout his career. The painting Doctor Grenfell in Labrador (private collection) may represent the solitude that accompanies living in an isolated area, whereas To God! (private collection), like Late Afternoon, suggests a more spiritual encounter. Monhegan Coast, Winter is more closely associated with the paintings Ancient Oak (private collection) and Lone Rock and Sea (William A Farnsworth Library and Art Museum) which exude a timelessness and universality that is reminiscent of Caspar David Friedrich, and the American luminists.

The continuity seen in Kent's paintings of Monhegan—from his very first visit to his last—was his genuine awe of nature. In a Thoreauian manner of living—whether it was on Monhegan or even Fox Island, or in Igdlorssuit—Kent found a means of experiencing nature, and in nature Kent found 'God'. How the artist expressed these sentiments (his artistic style) did change, or mature, but the message did not. Kent's key to conveying these sentiments was light.

The artist 's presentation of light certainly evolved from one period on Monhegan to the next. The latter work, as that produced in the Adirondacks or the Canadian Rockies, is little understood and readily debunked because it is considered contrived. On the contrary, properly illuminated, this latter work actually shows Kent's mastery of light. Kent removed the surface light of his earlier compositions and relocated it below the surface on his later work.

The study for Whitehead (11), like the study for Toilers of the Sea, was undoubtedly rendered all'aperto; aside from this similarity little else appears common. The former exhibits Kent's mature style and palette, the latter, his earlier work. Whitehead represents a method of painting where an idea was transferred onto a larger canvas. This final canvas was most likely composed in Kent's studio and as likely, with very little, if any, reworking. The base of these later final canvases was thinly primed with a fair pigment, and the compositions themselves also thinly painted, thus allowing light to literally eminate from the image. One of the most successful examples of this method is the painting Blackhead, Evening (private collection)29 In the completed composition, Whitehead shows slight variations in the rock formations and the inclusion of fishermen in a dory which separate this from the study.

Monhegan Headland (10)30 shares on affinity with Monhegan Coast, Winter in that it possesses two signatures. The location and date of this painting have proved to be ambiguous. With some reservation I will suggest that the white surface and pointed knobs of rock resemble features seen on Little Whitehead. Upon closer inspection this painting appears to be an earlier composition reworked or completed at a later time. An obvious thematic comparison—rocks and sea—can be made with Rocks, Monhegan, but the lighter hues are more analogous to the study, Whitehead.

Monhegan, Village at Night (12)31 also derives from Kent's later stays on the Island. As a focused study on night—as opposed to a subject veiled in night-light—this composition is an anomaly among Kent's paintings. A broader interpretation of night became the subject of the Whitney Museum of American Art's exhibition, Rockwell Kent by Night, in the summer of 1997; curiously absent from this were this composition and another exemplar of the topic, Bonson, Alpes Maritimes, Moonlight (The Phillips Collection). Another striking aspect of this painting, twilight reflecting on the clouds, is shared with the canvases Dan Ward's Stack: Ireland (Hermitage) and Kayaker: Greenland (Pushkin). The bold, contrasting palette depicted in Monhegan, Village at Night, is not commonly found in Kent's earlier Monhegan paintings.

The portrait of island laborers, as depicted in Fishermen's Beach, is retold in the work of several of Kent's friends and colleagues including George Bellows, Jim Fitzgerald, and Andrew Winter. The backdrop of this scene recalls Winslow Homer's The Artist Studio in an Afternoon Fog (Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester) and anticipates Kent's own, Maine Fog, Monhegan (Pushkin). Despite these common characteristics this painting, like all the paintings in this exhibition, are undeniably Kent.

The small oil studies that Kent rendered during the first decade of his career—Toilers of the Sea; Manana; Winter, Monhegan Island, et al.—are dramatic expressions of the vibrant mind and tireless physicality of an emerging messenger. These studies are executed with brushstrokes that are "rich, full, generous, alive," and "tell [a] tale in harmony with... the motive of the picture."32 They are fine works in themselves yet only precursors to paintings that are, by all accounts, some of the finest examples of Kent's work as a painter. Such is the legacy of Kent's artistic gleanings from Monhegan.

It was on Monhegan that Kent triumphed in his quest for self expression, came to terms with "God" and nature, and where he refined his personal credo to which he remained steadfast throughout his life. "It really was such a transitional, important period for Kent right there; it's so curious that it was an island off the coast of Maine."33


FOOTNOTES

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