Artist Trivia: Rockwell Kent

Rockwell Kent, Maine Coast, circa 1907, oil on canvas, Bequest of Mrs. Elizabeth B. Noyce, 1997.3.25
Rockwell Kent, Maine Coast, circa 1907, oil on canvas, Bequest of Mrs. Elizabeth B. Noyce, 1997.3.25

Who is this artist? 

Born in the later years of the 19th century in a town located on the Hudson River, this artist spent much of their early life around New York City. They studied with many influential artists of the time and on the advice of one of their instructors, visited an island off the coast of Maine where they worked for many years. 

Influenced by the American Transcendentalists, this artist found inspiration in the beauty of the wilderness, traveling to and living in remote rural areas of the United States, Canada, Ireland, and Greenland. As well as paintings this artist did graphically strong, modernist wood engravings, many of them illustrating autobiographical books that remain popular today

With the coming of the Second World War, the artist became more active in progressive politics. They were commissioned to create murals, one of which contained (in tiny letters) a polemical statement–apparently a message from the indigenous people of Alaska to the Puerto Ricans, in support of decolonization. This artist was also active as a congressional candidate. 

Supporting nuclear disarmament and the artist’s ongoing friendship with the Soviet Union brought attention from a prominent anti-communist senator. Their passport was suspended, but their work was exhibited in the former Soviet Union and hundreds of their drawings and paintings were donated to that country in 1960. 

The New York Times described this artist as “… a thoughtful, troublesome, profoundly independent, odd and kind [person] who made an imperishable contribution to the art of bookmaking in the United States,” when they died in 1971.

Answer: Rockwell Kent 

Rockwell Kent was born in 1882 in Tarrytown, New York. Of English descent, he lived much of his early life in and around New York City. In 1905 Kent ventured to Monhegan Island, Maine, and found its rugged and primordial beauty a source of inspiration for the next five years.

A transcendentalist and mystic in the tradition of Thoreau and Emerson, whose works he read, Kent found inspiration in the austerity and stark beauty of the wilderness. After Monhegan, he lived for extended periods of time in Winona, Minnesota, Newfoundland, Alaska, Vermont, Tierra del Fuego, Ireland, and Greenland.

As World War II approached, Kent shifted his priorities, becoming increasingly active in progressive politics. In 1937, the U.S. Treasury commissioned Kent to paint two murals in a New Post Office building in Washington, DC; the two murals, “Mail Service in the Arctic” and “Mail Service in the Tropics”, celebrate the reach of domestic airborne postal service. Kent included a polemical statement in the painting in support of decolonization. As translated, the communication read, “To the peoples of Puerto Rico, our friends: Go ahead, let us change chiefs. That alone can make us equal and free.” In the 1930s, he supported the Spanish Republic in the war against fascism. In 1948 he stood for Congress as an American Labor Party candidate.

His support for American nuclear disarmament and its continued friendship with the Soviet Union made him a target in the U.S. Congress. His participation in the Stockholm Appeal and the World Peace Council led to the suspension of his passport in 1950. After an exhibition of his work in Moscow, he donated several hundred of his paintings and drawings to the Soviet peoples in 1960.

In 1966 Kent was elected to the National Academy of Design as a full Academician. He died of a heart attack in 1971.

Rockwell Kent, Maine Coast, circa 1907, oil on canvas, Bequest of Mrs. Elizabeth B. Noyce, 1997.3.25

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