Rockwell Kent

artist artwork
Rockwell Kent was born in Tarrytown, New York in 1882 (but spent the majority of his life in Au Sable Forks), and was well educated in art. He also studied architecture at Columbia University. He was very familiar with building materials and at various times in his life worked as an architectural draftsman and ship's carpenter.

Kent did his first significant work at Monhegan Island, Maine and his work was first shown at the National Academy of Design in 1905. In 1916 he set himself up as a corporation and sold shares to his friends to finance his passage to Alaska, where his oil paintings and drawings established his reputation and made enough money for him to buy out his shareholders. Later he traveled widely, doing other landscape and seascape work in Newfoundland, Alaska, Tierra del Fuego, and Greenland. He also did a great deal of work illustrating working people, serving as an illustrator for The Masses, a popular left-wing magazine.

Approached in 1926 by publisher R. R. Donnelley to produce an illustrated edition of Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast, Kent suggested Moby Dick instead. Published in 1930, the deluxe edition sold out immediately; a lower-priced Random House edition became a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. A previously obscure book, Moby Dick was rediscovered by critics in the 1920s. The success of the Rockwell Kent illustrated edition was a factor in its becoming recognized as the classic it is today.

Kent was also active in left-wing politics. In 1938 the U.S. Post Office asked him to paint a mural in their headquarters in Washington, DC; Kent included (in Inuit dialect and in tiny letters) an antigovernment statement in the painting, which caused some consternation. In 1939, he joined the Harlem Lodge of the International Workers Order (IWO), a pro-Communist fraternal organization. A lithograph by Kent became the organization's logo in 1940, and, from 1944 to 1953, he served as the organization's President.

As a consequence of his outspoken leftist beliefs, his reputation in the United States declined somewhat in the 1950s and 1960s, and he became a target of McCarthyism. In 1960 Kent donated several hundred paintings and drawings to the Soviet Union, which responded by making him an honorary member of their academy of Fine Arts and awarding him the Lenin Peace Prize in 1967 (Kent donated the prize money to the people of North Vietnam).

When Rockwell Kent died in 1970, The New York Times described him as "... a thoughtful, troublesome, profoundly independent, odd and kind man who made an imperishable contribution to the art of bookmaking in the United States."