Rockwell Kent, born June 21, 1882, in Tarrytown, New York, is best remembered today for the large and varied body of artwork he left behind, including paintings, drawings, illustrations and woodcuts. His contemporaries, however, recognised him as a man of multiple talents and broad-ranging interests. Among other pursuits, Kent wrote several books, explored remote and isolated regions of the globe, took a passionate and active interest in politics, designed his own house and, for over 40 years, ran a 200-acre farm near Au Sable, New York.
Kent was encouraged in his artistic pursuits from a young age, championed by his mother’s sister, “Aunt Jo”, herself an amateur painter and ceramics decorator. At her suggestion, he attended summer art courses in Shinnecock Hills, Long Island, given by William Merritt Chase of the New York School of Art. In 1901, Kent was offered a scholarship to the school, which he, due to parental pressure, reluctantly turned down in favor of the Columbia University architecture program. Three years later, however, he had transferred to the New York School of Art, where he studied under Chase, Robert Henri, and Kenneth Hayes Miller. George Bellows and Edward Hopper were among his fellow students.
Kent’s artistic style, incorporating broadly massed forms and stark tonal contrast, was well-suited to portraying the open, often arctic landscapes he encountered during his extensive travels. His love of travel was first kindled in 1895, when the 13-year-old Kent accompanied his aunt on a tour of Europe. Through Robert Henri, Kent was then introduced in 1905 to the rugged headlands of Monhegan Island, off the coast of Maine, a locale which inspired a number of his paintings and to which he would return frequently throughout his life. He also took a number of extended trips to the Far North, especially during the years 1909–1930. His experiences in Newfoundland (1914), Greenland (1929, 1931, 1934), and Alaska (1918) inform a number of his works, and resulted in two books -- Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska (1920) and Salamina (1935), the latter reprinted in expanded form as Greenland Journal in 1962.
Politically, Kent maintained a pro-Russian stance throughout his life, and actively sought to improve relations between his own country and the Soviet Union. His sympathies earned him a degree of notoriety in the U.S., especially during the 1950s, when he was required to appear twice before the House Committee on Unamerican Activities, and was for several months denied a passport. In the decades leading up to his death in 1971, Kent was repeatedly invited to visit the Soviet Union, where his work was greatly admired. He and his wife, Sally, visited five times between the years 1958 and 1967, and Kent eventually bestowed a sizeable collection of his work on the Russian people.
West, Richard V., (ed.) An Enkindled Eye: The Painting of Rockwell Kent. Santa Barbara: Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1985. pp. 9-11, 15-25.
The Rockwell Kent collection consists of 272 letters written by the artist between the years 1951 and 1969 to David Wesley, a left-wing journalist for the York (Pennslvania) Daily and Gazette and Kent’s personal friend. The frequency of the correspondance between the two men suggests that their relationship shifted from a cordial acquaintanceship in the earliest letters to a solid friendship through the 1950s and into the 1960s. This friendship was disrupted by Wesley’s move to California in 1965, after which time few letters were exchanged. The letters were dictated to Kent’s wife and former secretary, Sally, and are arranged chronologically. Some include Kent’s hand-written annotations. Each letter, with any accompanying enclosures, has been counted as one item.
Kent’s relationship with Wesley seems to have been grounded in their similar political beliefs, as current political events figure prominently in the letters. Kent writes of his frustration with Cold War America, discussing McCarthyism, relating his own run-ins with the House Committee on Unamerican Activities, and describing his well-publicized struggles to obtain a passport. Throughout the period, Kent remains a steadfast supporter of the Soviet “experiment,” and actively advocates increased U.S./Soviet cooperation and friendship. In the letters, he describes the warm welcome he received on his several visits to the Soviet Union, where his work was greeted with great enthusiasm, and explains his bestowal on the Soviets of a large collection of his works in 1960 as a gesture of peace and friendship. Kent often calls on Wesley to address these and other topics of concern in the Gazette.
To a lesser degree, the letters also shed light on Kent’s work as an artist, as well as his personal life. Kent occasionally mentions individual paintings, exhibitions and book illustration projects, and discusses the writing of his autobiography, It’s Me O Lord (1955). Mention is also made of visits with friends and acquaintances and of Kent’s occasional speaking engagements. The last two letters refer to the loss of “Asgaard,” Kent’s farm house near Au Sable, New York, to fire in 1969, an event described in more detail by Corliss Lamont in a news article typescript dated April 30, 1969, also included in the collection.