“The Stormy Petrel of American Art”

Rockwell Kent was a master of bucolic landscapes, but his contentious politics earned him the nickname

Rockwell Kent
Wikimedia Commons

Few other artists in the history of 20th-century American art have received such praise and nearly equal condemnation as Rockwell Kent. For some his name may conjure up bold, sweeping landscape paintings of Maine's Monhegan Island, austere renderings of Greenland or spiritually invested depictions of New York State's Adirondack Mountains. Others may recall his dramatic illustrations of Moby Dick, Candide, Beowulf and the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare. Westinghouse, General Electric, Steinway & Sons, Sherwin-Williams and Rolls Royce all capitalized on his renown and creativity. His support of and participation in innumerable unions and causes, such as the International Workers Order and the American Artists' Congress, gave rise to the 1937 New Yorker ditty, "That day will mark a precedent, which brings no news of Rockwell Kent."

Twenty-nine years after his death, Kent has returned with a vengeance. Not since the height of his pre-McCarthyism popularity has so much of his work been available to the public. His own writings — Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska, Voyaging Southward from the Strait of Magellan and N by E among them — have been reprinted, and several new volumes on his work have been recently released.

And now, for the first time in 40 years, paintings from the "Great Kent Collection" —a group of works that the artist gave to the Soviet Union in 1960 —have returned to their homeland to be showcased in "The View from Asgaard: Rockwell Kent's Adirondack Legacy" (on display at the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake, New York, through October 15) and "Distant Shores: The Odyssey of Rockwell Kent" (at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, through October 29).

Kent's first love was painting. His work in book illustration, advertising and architectural rendering, and in designing fabrics, metalware, jewelry, murals and ceramic patterns, was primarily a means to make a living, as were his forays into dairy farming, carpentry, home construction and lobster harvesting. A man of boundless energy, Kent was considered "the most versatile man alive" by his friend, the poet Louis Untermeyer. "Sometimes (in spite of the physical evidence)," wrote Untermeyer, "I suspect he is not a person at all, but an Organization. . . ."

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