Part 9 in a Series

On March 7, 2020, the same day Henry McBride’s review came out in the New York Herald, Brooklyn Daily Eagle critic, Hamilton Easter Field, wrote of his visit to the Knoedler’s Gallery to see Rockwell Kent’s Alaska paintings. Field first wandered into the right-hand gallery where a month before he recalled seeing the wonderful work by French painter Edouard Manet (1832-1883). Now in that spot he saw, “an eyesore – a decoration which will never decorate – a picture of the life of the Indians in the Far West which has all the trumpery of a Parisian art student’s first attempt at historical compositions. In short, it is a painting which has none of the qualities which alone can justify the use of so large a canvas and so much good paint.”

This “eyesore” was by American painter Julius Rolshoven (1858-1930) – born in Detroit and trained in Europe with a home in Florence. He eventually settled in Santa Fe and was part of the Taos Society of Artists. Field thought he was skilled enough to paint a head quite well, but had “neither the skill nor the taste to succeed in a canvas as ambitious as that now shown at Knoedler’s.”

It was a more pleasant experience when Field escaped into an adjoining gallery to see fifteen of Rockwell Kent’s Alaska paintings and two dozen sketches. “This week has been marked by the opening of an unusually large number of exhibitions, some of which are quite important,” he wrote. “The one which has impressed me the most is that of the Alaska paintings by Rockwell Kent…Rockwell Kent is at his best in his more ambitious canvases. What constitutes the peculiar charm of Kent’s work? Why does it move us as much as nature does in her most impressive moods? That is what I do not know. I can but suggest reasons. The north wind bites and cuts, the mountains covered with snow seem as sharp as razor blades. The feeling which the north wind gives, how can it be painted? Rockwell Kent’s “Northwind” symbolic as it is, gives you the impression which the bitter wind made upon him. Here, then, is an artist who is capable of giving us in terms of beauty the thrills which he felt during an Alaskan winter.”

Field claimed that Kent recorded his experiences in paint as well as Henry David Thoreau did in words. “There are many points in common between Kent and Thoreau. Both have a strong instinctive love for what is elemental in nature. Both have the dread of the conventionality of the social life of civilization. They are different in that the prose of Thoreau is usually direct, whereas the art of Kent is suggestive, symbolic. It would seem as if he had learned from music the value of rhythm as a stimulus to suggestion, and from architecture the value of structural unity. There is much in common between Kent and Winslow Homer {1836-1910}. Kent is lyric and epic; Homer was epic with hardly a trace of the lyric in his nature. Rockwell Kent’s art is too great to need any foil.”

One can certainly deduce that Kent’s training as an architect influenced his painting. It's more interesting that Field sees Kent learning from music how rhythm can stimulate emotions. Kent’s wife, Kathleen, was a talented musician and music played an important role in their family life. Kent had met modernist American composer Carl Ruggles in Winona, Minnesota in 1913. They became close friends, and Rockwell illustrated some of Carl’s published works. It’s possible that this friendship played a role in moving Kent from realistic representational art to more modernist symbolic works since symbolism involved expressing one’s emotions on the canvas.

No doubt having read and pondered over all the reviews, Kent, wrote to Ruggles on May 2, 1920, “At last someone agrees with me about that fellow R.K.! Say! What a lot of spiritless boobs the critics are that hand you a little bit of milk or…posies and think we should fall on our knees and thank them. God – if I didn’t think almighty much of myself I’d have pride enough to have stopped painting long ago – and so would you have stopped your music.”

There were many more reviews of both Wilderness and the paintings and most were high in praise. The following excerpts from the book’s reviews, also illustrate the emotions that the art evoked as well. In the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “The atmosphere of the book is one of enthusiasm and reverence, two rare qualities. In its attitude toward life it seems…almost religious.” Maurice Francis Egan in the New York Times, “Those who know the appeal of Rockwell Kent’s art, the strength, which is the strength of genius, of his drawings, will know how to place this volume when we say that the text is even superior in force and beauty to the drawings themselves.” Critic Bayard Boyesen, “’Wilderness’ fairly stunned me and set my every nerve in me singing.” Robert Walker in the Scarsdale Inquirer, “This is a book to rejoice parent or child, simple, direct, and full of suggestion.” From the Columbia Dispatch, “The drawings are to conventional art what free verse is to formal poetry – frank, suggestive, and strong, giving us visions of power, ecstasy, weariness, labor, home comfort, and buffetings with natural forces.”

The British were particularly impressed with Kent’s book. The New Statesman called it “easily the most remarkable book to come out of American since (Walt Whitman’s) ‘Leaves of Grass’”. On July 23, 1920, a critic in the Times Literary Supplement titled his review, The Artist – What Will He Become. Kent wasn’t a born writer, he said, but he was a “very unequal draughtsman.” He found “Running Water” – part of the Mad Hermit series – one of the best drawings. The idea behind it wasn’t vague, as with some of Kent’s Blake-like drawings – “but a perfectly concrete image of a huge man, like a piece of sculpture, letting the water of a cascade run through his fingers; and behind, a black rock and a sky with three stars. he has drawn a kind of intimacy between the man and the water, like the intimacy in Chinese pictures.”

Right after “Running Water” in the Mad Hermit series is a drawing called “Immanence.” It is no accident that the recently published Chinese language edition of Wilderness with my forewords has “Immanence” on its cover. There was much interest among American artists in Chinese and Japanese art during the early 1900s, and there is much interest in Rockwell Kent in China today because of this kind of work.

The Times Literary Supplement continued his assessment of “Running Water,” “You cannot say what it means, nor does he pretend to tell you; but you believe in it. It does express a friendship of all created things, such as we ourselves seldom attain to, seldom can believe in, a primeval friendship, out of which no doubt, arose the myths, and the images of the poets, and the melodies of nature—musicians like Hayden and Dvorak. But it is a rare achievement in a modern artist thus to express it in form.”

Fortunately, this critic offered Rockwell Kent more than mere praise. Rather, he gave him what Henry McBride told him was designed to make him think – real constructive criticism. “There are in the book too many of the great lumbering, superman, figures which express nothing but a desire to draw something tremendous; there is a danger that Mr. Kent will get the habit of producing these enormities and waste his remarkable gifts upon them…Nowadays artists are always being misled this way or that, into mere dependence on the model, or, by reaction, into some kind of pompous abstraction. They have a narrow and perilous road to tread between the devil of dullness and the deep sea of vagueness.”

The publication of Wilderness and the exhibit of the Alaska paintings in March 1920, represented an important moment in the New York art world. Yet it’s an event mostly neglected in this history of American art. Though he became a noted and well-respected artist during the 1920s and 1930s, Rockwell Kent is today one of the most unknown famous American artists. He had significant influence – not only in the art world, but in literary circles as well.

Wandering through Knoedler’s Gallery that spring of 1920 was a 32-year-old writer and editor from Quincy, Massachusetts with a B.A. and M.A. from Harvard University. Henry Edouard Sheahan was enthralled by what he saw. The paintings reminded him of life’s elementals, his love of nature, the sea and his appreciation for William Blake. He had taught for a time at the University of Lyons in France. When World War I began he returned to teach at Harvard. The next year Sheahan joined the French Army as an ambulance driver and experienced the Battle of Verdun. In 1920, the same year he visited Kent’s Alaska paintings, Sheahan met the woman he would marry nine years later – Elizabeth Jane Coatsworth. Sheahan had read Wilderness and probably suggested it to Elizabeth.

On Feb. 16, 1921, he wrote her, “So you have been reading Rockwell Kent. I thought his canvases, which I saw at Knoedler's in N.Y., quite the most extraordinary things I saw last year. The new technique of course, bright blue and sea green meeting edge to edge without any attempt at shading, a queer enough style when used to bring out a conventional interior, but oh, by all the Olympians, what a style for Alaska! In that frozen land, without ‘atmosphere’ in the painter’s sense, surface evidently does approach surface in that unblurred manner which the new technique illustrates, mountains that are cones of solid white rise from solid ocean green and thrust their lifeless pinnacles hard against a sky hard as steel. The gallery at Knoedlers was positively haunted with an arctic cold and desolation. The sense of silence, of polar immobility that dwelt in the canvas was stupendous. Do see them if they are sent to California.”

Sheahan would eventually build himself a comfortable shack on the Cape Cod dunes, name it the Fo’castle, and record his solitude there during the various seasons. In 1928, the year before his marriage to Elizabeth, Sheahan would publish, as Henry Beston, a classic in natural history – “The Outermost House: A Year on the Great Beach of Cape Cod.” One can’t write a book like that without some reference to Henry David Thoreau, and Beston was certainly influenced by the Concord philosopher. But I believe that “The Outermost House” contains echoes of Rockwell Kent, Wilderness and the images of the Alaska paintings that so awed Beston in 1921. We can feel them in passages like this, “The world to-day is sick to its thin blood for lack of elemental things, for fire before the hands, for water welling from the earth, for air, for the dear earth itself underfoot…The great rhythms of nature, to-day so dully disregarded, wounded even, have here their spacious and primeval liberty; cloud and shadow of cloud, wind and tide, tremor of night and day.”

Henry Beston was far from the only writer and artist who was inspired and influenced by Wilderness and the Alaska paintings.

TO BE CONTINUED

Doug Capra lives in Seward with his wife, Cindy. He’s the author of The Spaces Between: Stories from the Kenai Mountains to the Kenai Fjords, and the foreword to the reprint of a special edition of Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska published by Wesleyan University Press in 1996.