PSU Home Page Rockwell Kent Biography, Photos from Exhibition - Still Photos of an Active Man Plattsburgh State Art Museum>Rockwell Kent Home Page>     Biography     1882 - 1971
Photo: Portrait of the artist in his studio.
Rockwell Kent in His Studio

Born: Tarrytown Heights, New York - 1882

    Rockwell Kent, artist, author, and political activist, had a long and varied career. During his lifetime, he worked as an architectural draftsman, illustrator, printmaker, painter, lobsterman, ship's carpenter, and dairy farmer. Born in Tarrytown Heights, New York, he lived in Maine, Newfoundland, Alaska, Greenland, and the Adirondacks and explored the waters around Tierra del Fuego in a small boat. Kent's paintings, lithographs, and woodcuts often portrayed the bleak and rugged aspects of nature; a reflection of his life in harsh climates.
    Kent had an unusually long and thorough training as an artist. He was a student at the Horace Mann School in New York City and subsequently studied architecture at Columbia University, toward the end of which he felt a strong inclination toward painting and took up the study of art under William Merritt Chase at the Shinnecock Hills School. He studied later at the New York School, under Robert Henri and Kenneth Hayes Miller, and finally as an apprentice to Abbott Thayer at Dublin, New Hampshire. Henri encouraged him to go to Monhegan Island where Kent painted on his own. He was absorbed in the awesome power of the environment; nature's timeless energy and contrasting forces influenced his work throughout his lifetime. His early and lasting relationship with the sea was portrayed again and again in his work.
    Kent both wrote and illustrated several books; Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska was published in 1920. Among his other works were Voyaging Southward from the Strait of Magellan (1924); Salamina (1934) about Greenland; and two autobiographies, This is My Own (1940) and It's me O Lord (1955).
    A political activist, Rockwell Kent championed social causes from the 1930's until his death. Although Kent insisted that he never belonged to the Communist party, his consistent support of radical causes contributed to a decline in his artistic popularity during the 1940s and 1950s. In the latter decade, the State Department revoked his passport. Kent sued for its reinstatement and emerged victorious in landmark Supreme Court case. He became very popular in the Soviet Union, and in 1957, half a million Russians attended an exhibition of his work. Subsequently, he donated eighty paintings and eight hundred prints and drawings to the Russian people. In 1967, he was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize.
    The graphic art tradition in which Rockwell Kent worked was not that of the Post-Impressionist or abstract International style, but rather an older and somewhat English style. Hogarth, Blake, Constable, the Pre-Raphaelites, and the British illustrators were his artistic antecedents. His work is most frequently identified with that of the American Social Realists and the great muralists of the 1920s and 1930s.
    Kent's figure-studies show with what perseverance he worked to perfect his draftsmanship and his ability to portray the human form in any pose or manner; his architectural training enabled him to draw objects accurately and convincingly.
    His experience as a carpenter and builder and his familiarity with tools served him well when he took up the graphic process. His blocks were marvels of beautiful cutting, every line deliberate and under perfect control. The tones and lines in his lithography were solidly built up, subtle, and full of color. He usually made preliminary studies- old-mater style- for composition or detail before starting on a print. Nothing was vague or accidental about his work; his expression was clear and deliberate. Neither misty tonalities nor suggestiveness were to his taste. He was a highly objectified art - clean, athletic, sometimes almost austere and cold. He either recorded adventures concretely, or dealt in ideas. His studio was a model of the efficient workshop: neat, orderly, with everything in its place. His handwriting, the fruit of his architectural training, was beautiful and precise.
    Kent stands out in American art in his use of symbolism. Humanity was the hero in most of his prints, which are symbolic representations of certain intuitions about life's destiny and the meaning of existence. Many of the prints seem to depict humanity in a struggle to capture ultimate reality, to penetrate into the mystery of the dark night of the universe, and to discover the reasons for existence. Over the Ultimate is a tragic but, at the same time, heroic conception. Consider the mood of wonder in Starlight, of terror in The End, the exultation of Pinnacle.
    The fact that Rockwell Kent never worked in the tradition of the Post-Impressionists had considerable effect on critical and public response to his work. In the 1920s, he was a rising young printmaker; and in the 1930s, he reached his greatest popularity. In 1936, the magazine Prints conducted an extensive and elaborate survey on the practitioners of graphic art in the United States. Kent came out far ahead of all others as the most widely known and successful printmaker in the country. Few artists have experienced such fluctuations in the public esteem of their work as has Kent, from extravagant praise to fanatic denunciation, usually based on nonaesthetic considerations or on a misunderstanding of the real import of his prints and paintings. When abstract modern art became better known and accepted in the 1940s, Kent's popularity suffered a commensurate decline. This fall from grace was compounded when he began to espouse unpopular leftist causes; his work was denounced for political reasons. Only now do we have the perspective to look at his work with a receptive and unprejudiced eye.
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