The Norman Rockwell Museum at Stockbridge

Stockbridge, MA



Distant Shores: The Odyssey of Rockwell Kent


Remembered for his striking illustrations for Moby Dick and other classics, Rockwell Kent (1882-1971) was most admired during his lifetime as a painter of dramatic landscapes of remote places, whose canvases entered the collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art and The Phillips Collection, among others. (left: Icebergs, Greenland, 1932-33, oil on canvas mounted on wood panel, 26 x 47 7/8 inches, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Purchase, 1934)

Now, for the first time, a major museum exhibition will be devoted to a central, dramatic aspect of Kent's art--his sojourns in the wilderness--as the Norman Rockwell Museum at Stockbridge presents "Distant Shores: The Odyssey of Rockwell Kent," on view from June 24 to October 29, 2000.

Drawing on material from private and public collections throughout the world---including an exceptional selection from the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia---"Distant Shores" will present more than ninety paintings, prints and drawings by Kent, all of them inspired by the artist's experiences in wilderness areas. The exhibition will trace Kent's life and work in five locales: Maine's Monhegan Island, Newfoundland, Alaska, Tierra del Fuego and Greenland. A highlight of the exhibition is a selection of illustrations that Kent made for his landmark edition of the Herman Melville classic Moby Dick, published by R.R. Donnelley & Sons Company. (left: Winter, Monhegan Island, 1907, oil on canvas, 33 7/8 x 44 inches, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Geaore A. Hearn Fund, 1917. Photograph © 1989 The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

His passion for the challenges of the turbulent seas and remote wilderness came from his love of Moby Dick, his early reading of Norse sagas and his familiarity with nineteenth century exploration journals. Later friendships with Arctic explorers instilled a lifelong interest in the Arctic and the desire, in his words, of "the Far North at its spectacular worst." He pioneered in Alaska; survived shipwreck in a small boat at 47, while attempting a voyage to Greenland; and (like a northward-turning Gauguin) settled for a period in the 1930s among Greenland natives. (left: Voyagers, Alaska, 1919-23, oil on canvas, 28 x 44 inches, University of Alaska Museum, Fairbanks)

According to Laurie Norton Moffatt, Director of The Norman Rockwell Museum at Stockbridge, "It is time to reinstate Rockwell Kent within the roster of important American artists of the twentieth century. Like too many others, he dropped into obscurity when the modernist movement made no room for his figurative and landscape compositions. Yet the paintings Kent created on his journeys into distant wilderness settings are enduring works of art, which remain beautiful, haunting, spare and pure." (left: Greenland People, Dogs and Mountains, c. 1932-35, oil on canvas mounted on panel, 28 1/8 x 48 inches, Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine, Museum purchase with fundsdonated anonymously)

"Distant Shores" is curated for the Norman Rockwell Museum at Stockbridge by guest curator Constance Martin, Research Associate and Curator at The Arctic Institute of North America, University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. "Kent read William Blake in Alaska," according to Martin. "Both Blake and Kent searched for an iconography that was both personal and Christian. But unlike Blake, Kent traveled to the outer edges of the physical world to search his own path, often without thought of the consequences. His boundless energy drove him to seek out cold winds and rough seas in places far from the security of home. "Distant Shores" tells the story of how this complex man found through his passionate love of wilderness, a stepping-stone to the life of the spirit." (left: Frozen Falls, Alaska, 1919, oil on canvas, 34 x 28 1/4 inches, Rockwell Kent Collections, Plattsburgh State Art Museum, New York. Gift of Sally Kent Gorton, Reproduced with the permission of The Rockwell Kent Legacies)


Rockwell Kent: A Brief Biography

Born into a genteel but financially insecure family in Tarrytown, New York, in 1882, Rockwell Kent enrolled in Columbia University in 1900 as an architecture student. But his enjoyment of painting classes at William Merritt Chase's summer school soon led him to abandon college, and he moved on to the New York School of Art, where he studied under Robert Henri. (left: Greenland Winter, 1934-35, oil on canvas mounted on plywood, 28 x 34 1/4 inches, Courtesy of Jake Milgram Wien, Reproduced with the permission of The Rockwell Kent Legacies)

In 1905, Henri introduced Kent to the summer artists' colony on Monhegan Island off the coast of Maine. Kent, unlike most of the artists, made the decision to remain on Monhegan through the winter, making friends with the residents, sailing with the lobster men, building his own house and painting canvases such as Winter, Monhegan Island (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and Village on the Island Monhegan (The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg).

In 1914, now married and a father, Kent moved to the small town of Brigus in Newfoundland, where he hoped to find an arcadian way of life and start an art school. His outspoken manner, socialistic views and love of German culture soon aroused enmity among the local residents, who suspected him of being a German spy. He was deported in 1915. The experience deeply depressing to Kent is reflected in powerful paintings, such as House of Dread. (left: Gutip Sernigiliget Kaladlit (God Bless the Greenlanders), 1932, watercolor over traces of graphite, 11 7/8 x 8 7/8 inches, Courtesy of Jake Milgram Wien, Reproduced with the permission of The Rockwell Kent Legacies)

Again feeling the need for solitude, in 1918 Kent went with his eight-year-old son, Rockwell III, to Fox Island, off the coast of Seward in Alaska's Resurrection Bay. There Kent found the isolation he'd been seeking for painting and reading, living with his son in a trapper's cabin. He also used his time in Alaska to perfect his skill as a woodblock engraver. The publication of his illustrated book Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska (1920), along with the exhibition of his paintings from Resurrection Bay, established Kent as a major American artist.

In 1922, Kent voyaged to Tierra del Fuego, on an unsuccessful attempt to sail around Cape Horn. The trip inspired a number of paintings and provided the material for a second illustrated book, Voyaging: Southward from the Strait of Magellan.

After a subsequent stay in a remote village in Ireland, Kent returned to New York State, where he purchased a 200-acre farm in 1927. For the remainder of his life, it was to be his home, though not his resting place. In 1929, he was off again, sailing to Greenland in a small boat with two men half his age. The voyage ended in shipwreck; but it introduced him to the Greenland natives and gave him his third illustrated book, N by E (1930). Kent was to return to Greenland twice more, in 1931-32 and 1934-35, and settled among the Greenlanders, making paintings and gathering the experiences that he set down in two subsequent illustrated books, Salamina (1935) and Greenland Journal (1960). According to Constance Martin, Greenland life "totally charmed him." Kent wrote, "How rich in everything was Greenland!...And no more complete with majesty were the mountains, nor limitless the ocean, than human kind seemed what it ought to be." Martin adds, "For Kent, the Greenland paintings were the most important of his career. He continued to work on them until his death." (left: Moby Dick, Chapter 41 (Moby Dick Rises), 1930, pen and india ink on paper, 7 1/8 x 11 13/16 inches, Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations © 1930 R.R. Donnelley & Sons Company)

Kent poured his first-hand knowledge of wilderness and the sea into the images he created for Herman Melville's Moby Dick. R.R. Donnelley & Sons Company published the deluxe, limited edition in 1930, featuring over 270 illustrations. A Random House edition was published the same year and was sold through the Book-of-the-Month Club, popularizing Kent's illustrations throughout the United States and the world.

There was one notable limit to Rockwell Kent's celebrity. When he was introduced to people, they frequently took him to be another artist known for his illustrations, Norman Rockwell. The latter, in turn, found that people often mistook him for Rockwell Kent.

After World War II, however, Rockwell Kent's fortunes declined. His art fell out of favor, as Abstract Expressionism became a dominant force; and his left-wing politics opened him to attack. During the years from 1950 to 1958, Senator Joseph McCarthy's investigations subcommittee summoned him to testify, the State Department revoked his passport and many institutions withdrew their invitations to exhibit his works. In 1958, Kent won a Supreme Court decision restoring his passport. But in outrage against his treatment during the McCarthy years, and in gratitude to the Soviet Union for giving him a 1957 retrospective at The State Hermitage Museum, Kent decided in 1960 to donate more than eighty of his paintings and 800 watercolors and drawings "to the people of the Soviet Union."

In the spring of 1969, Kent's home in the Adirondacks was struck by lightning and destroyed. Although he immediately arranged for a new house to be built on the foundations, he subsequently suffered a stroke. He died in 1971, shortly before his eighty-ninth birthday.


Catalogue, Symposium and Tour of the Exhibition

In conjunction with "Distant Shores," the University of California Press will publish an illustrated catalogue. In addition to a Foreword by Laurie Norton Moffatt, the catalogue will include essays by exhibition curator Constance Martin and Richard V. West, Director of the Frye Art Museum, Seattle, Washington. (left: Down to the Sea, 1910, oil on canvas, Brooklyn Museum of Art, Gift of Frank L. Babbott, Reproduced with the permission of The Rockwell Kent Legacies)

The Norman Rockwell Museum is collaborating with two other northeastern museums to present a summer of Rockwell Kent exhibitions and programs. The Adirondack Museum, Blue Mountain Lake, New York, and the Rockwell Kent Gallery at the Plattsburgh State Art Museum, New York, will both feature Kent exhibitions through October 2000. Rockwell Kent Rediscovered, a symposium on Rockwell Rent's life and work, September 13-16, 2000, will be hosted by all three museums, featuring almost two dozen speakers focusing on all aspects of Rockwell Rent's life and career. Participants at the Norman Rockwell Museum on September 16, 2000 will include Constance Martin, Richard V. West, Elizabeth Schultz (Chancellor's Club Teaching Professor, University of Kansas), Jeffrey Spalding (Director, Appleton Museum of Art), Jake Milgram Wein (independent scholar and curator) and Rockwell Kent scholar Robert W. Rightmire.

After being exhibited at the Norman Rockwell Museum at Stockbridge, "Distant Shores: The Odyssey of Rockwell Kent" will travel to the Appleton Museum of Art, Florida State University, Ocala, Florida (November 18, 2000 - January 29, 2001), the Terra Museum of American Art, Chicago (February 24 - May 20, 2001) and the Anchorage Museum of History and Art (June 17 - September 23, 2001).

"Distant Shores: The Odyssey of Rockwell Kent" is underwritten in part with the generous support of R.R. Donnelley & Sons Company.

See our previous article, The View from Asgaard: Rockwell Kent's Adirondack Legacy (4/9/99) and read more on the web via Plattsburgh State Art Museum, New York about Rockwell Kent.

Read more in Resource Library Magazine about the Norman Rockwell Museum

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