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THE ART OF THE BOOKPLATE

Rockwell Kent Gallery
May 3 - December 20, 2003

Although Rockwell Kent (1882-1971) thought of himself first as a painter, his enduring contribution to a distinctive American art is his black-and-white wood engravings and book illustrations. In 1927, his drawings for Candide, the first Random House title, made the 18th Century French satire a major seller, while his 1930 edition of Moby-Dick is credited with resurrecting Melville's long-ignored masterwork. (Seventy years later, it is still in print.) That Kent was so adept at illustrating books stemmed from his devotion to his own library. "The theft of a book," he wrote, "is more nearly homicide than larceny. The possession of books is both the promise of a richer life and, in degree, the sign of its fulfillment."

The least known of Kent's works are the more than 160 bookplates he designed between 1910 and 1968. Representing the passion for books he shared with his clients, each is a tiny work of art designed to disappear between the covers of books. Rockwell Kent: The Art of the Bookplate brings this hidden facet of his career to light for the first time, weaving it through the saga that was Rockwell Kent's life. A majority of the forgotten bookplates are shown, sometimes with Kent's original sketch, while the text includes excerpts from letters exchanged between the artist and his clients. Included as appendixes are a complete dated listing of Kent's bookplate designs and the two short essays he wrote on the subject.

Kent's approach to art was heartily democratic, and he accepted commissions to design bookplates for factory workers, college students and millionaires with equal enthusiasm. Believing that a bookplate should be the epitome of its owner, reflecting his/her history and aspirations, Kent regarded each commission as "a personal matter" between artist and client.

In his research for Rockwell Kent: The Art of the Bookplate, Don Roberts combed Kent's correspondence in the Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Art, searched his colleted works on paper at Columbia, Princeton and Plattsburgh State University, and interviewed the three surviving bookplate clients.

According to Roberts: "In the 1920's and 30's, bookplates were at the height of their popularity, and Kent's earliest ones were made as gifts for his friends and family-as well as his several mistresses. In the mid-1920s, after Kent had achieved unparalleled recognition and wealth as a commercial artist, a New York printer persuaded him to pursue bookplate commissions. The popular books he had written about his expeditions to Tierra del Fuego and Greenland only magnified his fame, so there was enormous prestige to having one's own Rockwell Kent bookplate. But in the 1940s and 50s, when Kent's realist art fell out of favor and his socialist politics made him an easy target of John Foster Dulles and Joe McCarthy, he described himself as 'desperately poor' and relied on bookplate commissions to help support his modest way of life in upstate New York. In his last years, the 1060s, it was only the occasional bookplate commission that brought assurance that he and his art hadn't been entirely forgotten."

Don Roberts edited the Diaries of Adam & Eve: Translated by Mark Twain, an expanded edition of the Twain stories published by Fair Oaks Press. He also produced and directed the audio version, which was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2000. He is currently at work on John Chancellor: Where Journalism and Diplomacy Intersect, an account of the network news anchor's directorship of the Voice of America. A native of Alabama with an architectural education, he lives in San Francisco.

Will Ross, who wrote the forward to Rockwell Kent: The Art of the Bookplate, is a respected writer-lecturer on Kent's career as a commercial artist. An administrative judge with the U.S. Department of Defense, he lives in Calabasas, California.
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