Rockwell Kent was born June 21, 1882 in Tarrytown Heights, New York. He began his formal education at Horace Mann School in New York City and attended summer art school at Shinnecock Hills near Southampton, Long Island. Shinnecock, founded in 1891 by William Merritt Chase, was the first out-of-doors summer art school in America. Inspired by Chase, Kent devoted himself to painting. Impressed with Kent's abilities, Chase offered him a full scholarship to the New York School of Art, where in 1900 he studied under Chase, Kenneth Hayes Miller and Robert Henri.
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In 1905, at Robert Henri's suggestion, Kent traveled to Monhegan, an island off the coast of Maine, to paint on his own. The sharp edges and strong contrasts of the rugged Maine coast, together with its self-reliant people, were so stimulating to Kent that in 1906 he returned to Monhegan and built a house on Horn's Hill. By 1907 Kent had managed to produce enough Monhegan paintings for an exhibition at Clausen Galleries in New York. Reviews of that exhibition were encouraging, and a number of the paintings eventually went to important collections. In December of 1907, Kent met Kathleen Whiting, who he married in 1908. The couple settled on Caritas Island, near Stamford, Connecticut.
Kent, like many other artists, resented the consistent rejection by the National Academy of any art that was not safely traditional. He became involved in the organization of the first non-juried exhibition as a result of Robert Henri suggesting to John Sloan in January of 1910 that they start a society with the purpose of presenting a no-jury exhibition. The idea soon took hold, with Kent and Walt Kuhn joining in and locating an exhibition site in a building on West Thirty-Fifth Street in New York. The exhibition made a lasting impression on the world of art, planting the seeds for the future Armory Show of 1913 and, ultimately, the establishment of the Society of Independent Artists in 1916.
Rockwell Kent's boundless energy and adventurous spirit led to extensive traveling in search of appropriate subject matter for his paintings. In 1914, he sought subjects at Brigus, a small town on the east coast of Newfoundland. Two of the Newfoundland subject paintings were first exhibited in 1917 at the Society of Independent Artists exhibition. Kent's Newfoundland painting attracted Marie Sterner, a dealer in contemporary art at Knoedler & Co. Sterner was able to sell several of Kent's paintings, including The Seiners to Henry Frick, and Winter, Monhegan Island to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. With this new wealth, Kent was able to travel to Alaska in July 1918, where he stayed with his son on Fox Island, Resurrection Bay. There he devoted his time to painting by day and drawing by lamplight at night until his return to New York the following year. An exhibition of his Alaskan works at Knoedler Galleries in New York in March, 1919 was a great success allowing Kent to purchase a permanent home for his growing family.
The Kents bought a farm known as Egypt in Arlington, Vermont in 1919, into which Rockwell invested all of his new wealth. With the family funds so depleted, Kent incorporated himself on the strength of his future work and sold stock to friends with certificates that he designed. His financial success in exhibitions allowed him to end his incorporation within a couple of years, paying a hefty dividend of 20% to his shareholders.
Rockwell Kent continued his search for subjects with a voyage in 1922 to Tierra del Fuego and the Straits of Magellan, at the southern tip of South America. His experiences there were related in Voyaging: Southward from the Strait of Magellan, with 100 illustrations by the author. The book was published in 1924 and sold so well that a second edition was published the following month. In addition to his illustrations, twenty paintings were executed as a result of Kent's voyage to Tierra del Fuego and the Straits of Magellan. They were exhibited at Wildenstein Galleries in 1925. Perhaps one of the most accomplished oils from this journey was the marine, The Sara at Dawson Island, in which Kent paints himself aboard his ship, the Kathleen, with the Sara and icebergs in the background.
Kent divorced and remarried in 1926 and the next few years were busy ones, with Kent visiting France, Ireland and Denmark. In 1928 Kent and his new wife Francis Lee established a permanent home in the Adirondacks. Kent wanted mountains to look at and level land for farming. He found his ideal location near Ausable Forks at Asgaard Farm, an abandoned 257 acre farm where Kent proceeded to design every detail of the house, barn, and studio.
In 1929 Kent made his first of many trips to Greenland. There, in the silent waters of North Greenland, he discovered a remote wilderness where the landscape dominated, if not completely excluded, human society. Greenland's wilderness landscape served as an attractive alternative to the rural scenes painted by American regional painters. Kent told the story of his visit to Greenland in the illustrated book North by East in 1930 and Wildenstein Gallery in New York held an exhibition of Kent's Greenland paintings. Kent was to visit Greenland again in 1931, 1933 and 1934. With Kent's return from Greenland in 1935, his arctic adventures came to an end. In July of 1936 Kent spent a week in Puerto Rico prospecting for material for two murals commissioned by the Public Works Administration for the new Post Office Building in Washington, DC. The murals were completed and mounted in September of 1937. Kent was commissioned the following year by General Electric Company to execute another work for the company's annual calendar as well as a mural for their exhibition building at the New York World's Fair held in 1939. The painting, Greenland Mountains and Sea, was executed during this 1936-1937 period when Rockwell Kent was working on mural commissions and fresh from his Greenland travels.
Kent's well-publicized political activities increased over the years and his affiliations were diverse, including the American League for Peace and Democracy; American Artists' Congress, vice-chairman; League of American Writers; National Committee for People's Rights, chairman; Artists' League of America, president; and the American Committee for Democracy and Intellectual Freedom, as well as vice president of the International Workers Order. Although Kent declared that his views were not inconsistent with American democracy and love for his country, he nevertheless laid himself open to McCarthy's censure. Know and Defend America, an impressive exhibition that opened at Wildenstein's Gallery in New York in 1942, was the last important display of his paintings in America until 1969.
Kent's return to favor began in 1969 with Rockwell Kent: The Early Years, an important exhibition held during the month of August, 1969 at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine. It was an impressive retrospective that included sixty of Kent's finest paintings made between 1903 and 1935, lent by museums and private collections. Rockwell Kent died two years later on March 13, 1971 in Plattsburgh, New York.
Recent important exhibitions of the artist's work include The View from Asgaard: Rockwell Kent's Adirondack Legacy, 1999-2000, The Adirondack Museum, Blue Mountain Lake, New York, and Distant Shores: The Odyssey of Rockwell Kent, which originated in 2000 at The Norman Rockwell Museum and traveled to the Appleton Museum of Art in Ocala, Florida; the Terra Museum of American Art in Chicago, Illinois; and the Anchorage Museum of Historical Art in Anchorage, Alaska. Another major exhibition, Rockwell Kent: The Mystic and the Modern, was held in 2005 at the Portland Museum of Art, Portland, Maine.