1882 – 1971
A prolific graphic artist, Rockwell Kent’s distinctive style made him one of the most recognized artists during the first half of the 20th century.
Kent was born in Tarrytown, NY the same year as artists George Bellows and Edward Hopper who were later his fellow students at the Art Students’ League in NYC. His aunt was an amateur artist who encouraged his interest and education by taking him on a European tour when he was 13 making it possible for him to experience famous art and architecture first hand.
He studied mechanical drawing and woodworking in school and took summer classes from artist William Merritt Chase who taught him to paint out of doors, looking directly at his subjects. Chase offered him a scholarship to his famous New York School of Art. But his mother didn’t like the idea of his associating with bohemians and persuaded him instead to accept a scholarship to study architecture at Columbia University. His architectural studies lasted three years at which point he decided fine art was his true interest. He belatedly accepted the scholarship to the New York School of Art. Besides Chase, his teachers there were Robert Henri and Kenneth Hayes Miller both of whom were painters of everyday urban subjects.
Kent had early success having a one man show in NY when he was 22 and selling a painting to Smith College. His forms became somewhat abstract, simplified, and rounded and he began to be labeled as a Modernist.
He lived with his family in Maine for a number of years painting the landscape. On a trip to Alaska with his young son in 1918 he produced his first adventure memoir- a written journal and illustrations that were intended as letters home, but were eventually published. The Alaska paintings were exhibited at Knoedler Gallery in NY. Later trips to Newfoundland, Tierra del Fuego, Ireland, and Greenland also resulted in large productions of art.
R.R. Donnelly, the publisher, wanted him to illustrate the classic Two Years Before the Mast, but Kent persuaded him to instead do Moby-Dick. The book was published in 1930 in 3 volumes filled with Kent’s pen and ink drawings and a copper engraving title page. It was a limited edition and sold out immediately. Random House Publishing then printed a general edition which also became popular and Moby- Dick, up to that time a very obscure book, became a classic of American literature. From that time, Kent’s art primarily became book illustration.
Kent also did work under another name, using “Hogarth, Jr.” to sign whimsical and irreverent drawings published in Vanity Fair, New York Tribune, Harper’s Weekly, and the early Life magazines.
About the 1930’s he was doing murals and stage sets. One of his stage sets was in Massachusetts and it was publicized that he refused to finish it (although he did) because he didn’t want to set foot again in Massachusets as a protest to the infamous Sacco and Vanzetti trial. He joined the International Workers Order, a socialist fraternal organization and was its President from 1944 – 53.
Two things happened to impede his art career. One was the rise of Abstract Expressionism in the late 1940’s and the decade of the 1950’s made his type of modernism and subject matter no longer in vogue. The other is his that prominence in socialist politics coincided with the anti-Communist probes during the McCarthy era.
He donated several hundred of his drawings to the Soviet people and received the Lenin Peace Prize as a result. For a decade he faded into obscurity.
In the 1960’s he again began to receive critical attention.
When he died, the New York Times said he “was a thoughtful, troublesome, profoundly independent, odd and kind man who made an imperishable contribution to the art of bookmaking in the United States”.
His work can be seen at The Art Institute of Chicago, Corcoran Gallery, Museum of Modern Art, National Academy of Design, Society of Illustrators, the Whitney Museum of American Art and other institutions.
image size 4” x 5 1/2”
signedwood engraving printed 1926
archivally matted and framed
framed size 11 7/8” x 13”
Double print from a limited editionbook of his wood engravings.
unsignedprinted in 1930
image size 7” x 5 ½”
image size 1½ “ x 2 ½
archivally matted and framed together
framed size 14 ½ ” x 17 ½”