KENT, ROCKWELL (1882–1971). Rockwell Kent, painter, writer, adventurer, graphic artist, and political activist, was born in Tarrytown
Heights, New Jersey. He trained as an architect at Columbia University and
studied painting under William Merritt Chase, Robert Henri, Abbott
Thayer, and Kenneth Hayes Miller. In 1905 Henri introduced the young
socialist to the rugged cliffs of Monhegan Island, off the Maine coast. Kent
lived there for a time, painting, reading, lobstering, building houses, doing
odd jobs, and gaining an affinity for the sea that is reflected in his travels,
art, and writing.
He had made two trips to Newfoundland before going to Alaska in 1918.
In Resurrection Bay near Seward, Alaska, Kent lived on Fox Island with his
nine-year-old son and an old Swede who ran a fox and goat ranch. Kent
and his son often rowed the twelve miles from town to the island that winter, nearly swamping amid cross currents and squalls. The result of this
Alaskan sojourn was his first book, Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure
in Alaska (1920), based on his letters and journals. Two New York shows
that exhibited his Alaska artwork initiated his rise to fame.
Kent’s next sea adventure took him to Chile, where he bought an old
lifeboat for twenty-five dollars, named it Kathleen after his wife, and prepared it for a sail round Cape Horn.* Kent eventually attempted the venture
in another small sloop, but, due to poor weather, made it only into Franklin
Sound. He told that story in his second illustrated book, Voyaging Southward from the Strait of Magellan (1924). In 1948 Kent illustrated A Treasury of Sea Stories and included an evocative sketch of Joshua Slocum*
rounding Cape Horn in the Spray.
Kent’s best-known illustrated book, N by E (1930), chronicles his sail to
Greenland in the thirty-three-foot Direction, the first yacht from America
ever to attempt such a voyage. He describes the boat’s stormy wreck in a
windswept fjord, his overland trek to seek help for the three-man crew, and
his painting in Greenland. The history of the Direction as well as some of
the story that Kent omitted are told in The Saga of Direction: A Cruising
Cutter’s First Fifty Years (1978) by Charles H. Vilas. Later trips to Greenland resulted in two more illustrated books, Salamina (1935) and Rockwell
Kent’s Greenland Journal (1962).
During the Direction voyage, Kent was finishing one of his most ambitious projects, the three-volume Lakeside Press edition of Moby-Dick*
(1930). When the project began in 1926, editors gave Kent not only his
choice of books to illustrate but also carte blanche regarding design details.
With its 280 illustrations, the book is considered one of the finest produced
in this country and contains the most complex illustrations of Herman Melville’s* classic novel. Young William Faulkner* was so impressed with Kent’s
work that he bought an illustration of Ahab* from him, which remained on
the wall of his Rowan Oak library the rest of his life. The drawings induced
Sterling Hayden* to run away to sea, subsequently dedicating his autobiography, Wanderer (1963), to Kent and to another sailing radical, Warwick
Tompkins. Elizabeth Schultz devotes an entire chapter to Kent’s illustrations
in her book Unpainted to the Last: Moby-Dick and Twentieth-Century
American Art (1995).
Always associated with radical causes, Kent was subpoenaed by Senator
Joseph McCarthy in 1953, whose committee was intent on destroying several of Kent’s “subversive” books housed in overseas government libraries,
including Wilderness and N by E. This incident and the popularity of abstract
expressionist style over Kent’s dramatic realism damaged his reputation and
reduced his ability to obtain the commercial work that he depended to
finance his painting.
More recently, Kent’s artistic reputation is on the rise, along with that of
other American realists such as Winslow Homer and Edward Hopper. Kent even appears as a character in Jane Urquhart’s* novel The Underpainter,
the fictional memoirs of a minimalist painter who became Kent’s friend and
also studied under Robert Henri.