Rockwell Kent: Biography & Books

Instructor: Susan Nagelsen

Susan has directed the writing program in undergraduate colleges, taught in the writing and English departments, and criminal justice departments.

Rockwell Kent was known for his landscapes as well as his illustrations. He traveled widely, using his experiences as fuel for his art. He was also articulate and political, which caused him some difficulties.

Twists and Turns

Rockwell Kent was born into a wealthy family in Tarrytown, New York, on June 1, 1882. As a young child, he lived a gilded life, moving from one beautifully appointed house to another. His father was a New York City lawyer, and his mother was a niece of James and Josephine Banker, one of the first millionaire families in New York. Tragedy struck the Kent family in 1887 when Rockwell Kent Sr. died from typhoid fever. Rockwell Kent, his mother, and his siblings were left with a life that only vaguely resembled the one they'd once had.

Though now living in poverty, Rockwell was encouraged by his aunt, Josie Banker, an artist who worked on ceramics. Her interest in Rockwell's art allowed him to expand his horizons when he traveled to Europe to experience the art of other cultures. He continued his artistic education at the Horace Mann School in New York, where he studied mechanical drawing and woodworking. This educational experience provided the base for his later work. His talent and attention to detail are evident in his illustrations and his paintings.

Rockwell's education was thorough and highly developed. When he completed his training at the Horace Mann School, he went to Columbia University, where he studied architecture; it was there that his strong interest in painting developed. He studied art under influential artists of the time, such as William Merritt Chase and Robert Henri, from whom he took classes. It was Albert Thayer who influenced Rockwell greatly, and the two became friends. They painted together in New Hampshire and engaged in wide ranging discussions that affected Kent profoundly. He was encouraged to travel extensively, and travel he did.

Rockwell Kent
Rockwell Kent

Eyes Wide Open

During his impoverished state, Rockwell developed an awareness about the difference between the classes. He realized that some people have a lot of money, but most people have little or no money, and he was aware that he was distressed about it. This realization would color much of his life, his politics, and his voice of social responsibility.

He was the perfect example of the 'starving artist,' and had sponsors or patrons who helped support him in return for pieces of his art. Albert Thayer hired Kent as an apprentice, and it was through his association with Kent that he met and married his first wife, Kathleen Whiting, in 1908. She was Thayer's niece, and together they had five children.

Traveling in His Blood

During his early years, Kent fell in love with the Maine coast. He built a house and lived there year-round for many years. He worked as a tradesman, but did some of his most impressive paintings showcasing the sea and the rocky coast. He had his first one-man show in 1907 at New York's William Clausen Gallery.

Kent's love of travel and all things new took him to Newfoundland, where he and his family lived for a year from 1914-1915. He ran into difficulties with the locals because of his love for German culture. He was fascinated by the German language, their heritage, and their food. The people of Brigus questioned his loyalties when he walked around town speaking German or singing German songs, and they exiled him because they thought he might be a spy.

In 1918, Kent and his young son moved to Alaska on Fox Island in Resurrection Bay. It was there that he honed his skills as a wood-engraver. This period from 1918-1919 brought changes in the focus of his work; he still focused on loneliness and nature, but the theme of martyrdom emerged with great strength.

While he had settled his family in Vermont in 1919, Kent was not finished with his need to wander. In 1922, he set off for Tierra del Fuego, where he hiked across Becknock Pass, and he even attempted a sail around the Horn in a lifeboat. He returned with enough paintings for an exhibit that was held at the Wildenstein Gallery in 1924.

In 1920, Kent published his first collection of letters, titled Wilderness, as well as paintings from his time in Alaska. His work was well received by critics and art lovers, and he realized fame and financial gain for the first time.

A New Beginning and Then a Change

Kent divorced Kathleen in 1925 and married Francis Lee shortly after. They made their home on a farm in New York. This would be Kent's home for the rest of his life, but his traveling days were far from over. For the next ten years he traveled to France and Ireland, Denmark, and Greenland. He found that the indigenous people of Greenland brought out great sympathy in him, and he created painting after painting to capture what had touched him in these people.

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