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Rockwell Kent’s Country

In the McCarthy era, painting and politics didn't mix.
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Whatever time it is, it’s time to appreciate Rockwell Kent, one of America’s most popular painters and designers in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s. It took me five chance encounters with this semi-forgotten figure—three in used bookstores and two in art museums—to realize how wrong my ignorance of him was. But there was a reason for it: politics, specifically those of World War II and the McCarthy era.

Born in 1882, Rockwell Kent hailed from Tarrytown, New York, heart of the Hudson River School of painting, and showed artistic ability from an early age. His ancestral Kents and Rockwells had come ashore more than 200 years before: in his 1955 autobiography, It’s Me O Lord, Kent traced his forebears back to a long line of carpenters and fierce freedom-lovers who built fortune upon fortune in the New World. He grew up privileged, ingenious, self-confident, and liberal—as in free-thinking. That masterful sense of self got Kent through many a scrape and ordeal as he blasted through life.

His graphic illustrations—employing pen and ink, dry brush, lithography, wood engraving (xylography), and block prints—reveal the training in architecture he received at Columbia. But oil painting was his “first love,” and by 1903 he was pursuing it at the New York School of Art, where he encountered both the elegant William Merritt Chase and the raw Robert Henri of the art-for-the-masses Ashcan School. Henri encouraged him to get out and paint Nature and the People en plein air, suggesting Kent move to rugged Monhegan Island off Maine to get started.

The Monhegan years kindled Kent’s fame. His contact with the island’s fisher folk profoundly affected him, and thenceforth he felt the need to become what he was painting: lobsterman, laborer, house carpenter, furniture maker, well digger, lighthouse keeper, sailor, farmer. When his Maine landscapes had their New York debut in 1907, the Sun’s art critic raved, “The paint is laid on by an athlete of the brush.” Fellow painters were awed by his power to capture the spirit of land and life in so many media. Canada’s Group of Seven was profoundly influenced by him. He had a beautiful hand.

Monhegan also led Kent to the first of three wives: Kathleen Whiting, niece of grand eccentric painter Abbott Thayer. Their union lasted from 1908 to 1925 and saw the birth of five surviving children. Kent’s constant impulsive, or perhaps compulsive, flights to the ends of the earth—Greenland, Iceland, the Alaska Territory, Tierra del Fuego—inevitably distressed his marriages.

A classic Rockwell Kent situation befell the family when Kent decided in 1914 to expatriate and paint in Newfoundland. They’d been there scarcely a year before they were deported on suspicion that Herr Kent was a German spy: after all, he yodeled and sang German songs as he strode about; he named his second daughter Hildegarde; and he refused to wallow in the anti-Kraut vituperation of World War I. But Kent was simply a convinced contrarian. Ideologies meant nothing to him. He was as enthused by Teddy Roosevelt’s exhausting vigor as he was by the Wobblies’ reckless camaraderie. His notion of being an American was to champion “the little man,” the man for whom America had been invented.

Another typical situation was his 1918 sojourn on a remote Alaskan island with eldest son Rocky, then nine years old. “In quietness the soul expands,” wrote Kent: wilderness held the seed, the evergreen promise of freedom, a promise that even democracies continually betrayed. Although father and son both nearly perished, Kent departed after several months with the stuff of two best-sellers—Wilderness and A Northern Christmas, profusely illustrated with vivid ink drawings—but more important, with a trove of canvases and sketches that have been called the most successful effort ever to reproduce the beauty of the far North: the cold gold glare of the midnight sun, the glacier ice that absorbs red and yellow spectra and reflects back purest blue, the infinite tones of white, what Douglas Brinkley calls “the kaleidoscopic radiance of wild Alaska” and Kent called its “luminous abyss.”

In 1929, after returning from another near-fatal but excitingly written up and brilliantly illustrated adventure—yachting with two other men from Newfoundland to Greenland, where they wrecked on a barren coast and were rescued by Eskimos and Danes—Kent embarked upon a career as a book illustrator. Moving easily in New York society, he designed colophons for Viking Press, Random House, and the Modern Library, logos still in use today.

This hectic urban phase included illustrations—influenced by his own memoirs of Greenland (N by E) and Tierra del Fuego (Voyaging)—for a new edition of Moby-Dick that revived the fame and fortunes of what was then a nearly forgotten classic. The 1930s saw Kent much in demand in the publishing world: for Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales, the complete works of Shakespeare, the memoirs of Casanova, the Decameron, Candide, Faust, Leaves of Grass, and many more.

Meanwhile, there was politics.

Kent’s career bestrode the Age of the Manifesto. The mad intensity of the ’20s, the “almost complete breakdown of our whole industrial machine” in the ’30s, and the slide toward war of the ’40s forced artist to become activist. As he explained in 1940’s This Is My Own, the first of two formal autobiographies (though all his writings are autobiographical):

I believe in Peace and, as a clear and never-failing voice for Peace, in Art. … I am ashamed of it; ashamed … of my childlike innocence, my adolescent credulousness, my fatuous belief. Roosevelt and the New Deal—can’t we recall what faith we had in them in ‘33? … Just let us live in peace. … Deeply and from my heart, in utter reverence I pray: God damn them all.

Pacifism and noninterventionism were about to be criminalized when Kent was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1939 to explain his views and associations. He honestly denied being a Communist Party member, but he would not disavow his Red friends and associates, who were legion. He had designed posters for the IWW, contributed graphics to The Masses, slipped rebellious slogans into his WPA murals, and served as an official of the International Workers Order insurance society. He was harassed again after the war. In 1950 the government revoked his passport, and in 1953 the Permanent Investigations Subcommittee tried once more to sweat him on his radical ties. Senator McCarthy interrupted the artist’s defense by snapping, “I’ll not hear a lecture from you, Mr. Kent,” to which Kent retorted, “You certainly won’t—I get paid for my lectures!”

Emerging from this inquest, where he had refused to answer “Are you now or have you ever been?”, Kent was accosted by reporters who asked the same question. This time he chortled scornfully, “No I am not and have never been… and practically everybody knows that!”

It was not until 1958 that the Supreme Court—in the landmark decision Kent v. Dulles—ruled that his passport must be returned immediately. In the majority opinion, Justice William O. Douglas linked freedom of movement with the right to go abroad: “The right to travel is a part of the ‘liberty’ of which the citizen cannot be deprived without due process of law under the Fifth Amendment. … In Anglo-Saxon law, that right was emerging at least as early as the Magna Carta.”

But after all the bad PR, Kent underwent what critic Edward Hoagland calls “steep neglect of his work.” Galleries and shows were closed to him; collectors no longer collected him. In 1960 he defiantly donated 80 paintings and 10 times as many drawings and prints to Soviet Russia, and to this day they repose in the Hermitage and Pushkin museums, among others. In 1967 the Soviets awarded him the $28,000 Lenin Peace Prize, most of which he gave away to charities—in Vietnam.

Rockwell Kent was a gadfly, and a bit of a crank, who “just wanted to be left alone.” Egotistical socialist, cosmopolitan isolationist, patriotic globalist, home-loving adventurer, Christian nature-worshipper, avant-garde antimodernist, philandering family man, “deeply misanthropic” humanitarian, democratic individualist, ecstatic engineer, bon vivant laborer—in many ways he was a painterly equivalent of the resistance poet Robinson Jeffers. thisarticle

Between Americans today and men like Kent and Jeffers there is not just a cultural but an anthropological difference. A Renaissance proverb says, “A cat may look at a king”—feline nature disdains servility. A Kent too may look at a king. His story demonstrates the necessity for multiple, autonomous power centers whenever public opinion congeals into a smothering mass. It is not necessary that one’s chosen refuge be 100 percent righteous, merely that it exist.

Rockwell Kent, the erstwhile communist, at last reposes beneath a stone that reads “This Is My Own,” a line taken from Sir Walter Scott’s “Breathes there a man with soul so dead / Who never to himself hath said, / ‘This is my own, my native land?’” Kent died in 1971 on his farm called Asgaard, after Nordic myth, just up the river from his Hudson birthplace, in Plattsburgh, near the Canadian and Vermont borders.

A friend of William Blake wrote after his death, “His aim single, his path straightforward, and his wants few; so he was free, noble, and happy. He was a man without a mask.” Rockwell Kent, too, lived a free man—one of the last of the Americans.

Marian Kester Coombs writes from Crofton, Md.