Friday, March 19, 2021

Distant Shores: The Odyssey of Rockwell Kent by Constance Martin

A nutshell biography with emphasis on his paintings
In the early twentieth century, Rockwell Kent was the premier book illustrator in American publishing. It may have been his illustrations for the 1930 edition of Moby Dick that made him a household name, but Kent’s art adorned numerous literary and commercial publications. He was also a fine artist whose paintings have been exhibited in galleries and museums worldwide. Hand in hand with his artistic pursuits, Kent lived a life of adventure. He traveled to remote and exotic lands, drew and painted the landscapes and people he encountered there, and published books detailing his life in far-off places, often harsh wildernesses in cold and arctic climes. The book Distant Shores: The Odyssey of Rockwell Kent, published in 2000, details Kent’s life as a traveler and examines the paintings he created of his journeys to Maine, Newfoundland, Alaska, Tierra del Fuego, and Greenland.

Distant Shores was published as a catalog for an exhibition of Kent’s work organized by the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The bulk of the book consists of full-page color reproductions of Kent’s paintings. The text is written by Constance Martin, art historian at the University of Calgary, and Richard V. West, director of the Frye Art Museum in Seattle (Those were there positions at the time of publication.) Martin discusses Kent’s travels and the paintings depicted in the book, while West covers Kent’s later career and his controversial political views. Kent was an outspoken socialist during the McCarthy era, which hurt his career in the United States, though he was a big hit in the Soviet Union, to which he donated a large collection of his artworks. Kent really led a fascinating life, but the main attraction of this coffee table book is its images, so the reader only gets the briefest outline of a Kent biography. Nevertheless, it is enough to captivate the reader’s interest for the course of the book’s two essays.

Though an accomplished painter, Kent is best known for his illustrations, usually in the form of pen and ink drawings or wood engravings. Personally, I am not enamored with Kent’s paintings, at least not the period of his career depicted here. His style is a cross between the Northeastern American style of Winslow Homer and the Wyeth family and the Canadian school of impressionists known as the Group of Seven, most notably Lawren Harris and Franklin Carmichael. I prefer the works of all of the aforementioned artists over the works of Kent exhibited in this volume. Kent had a great sense of color, as demonstrated by these works, but his brushwork is clumsy and his compositions often overly simplistic. The fact that his illustrations are so fastidious and precise makes it all the more difficult to understand why his paintings are often so loose and murky. For those who prefer Kent’s more illustrative style, the book does include at least a couple dozen of his black and white paintings and engravings, including several from Moby Dick.

I enjoyed Distant Shores more for the book’s biographical content than for the paintings included in the exhibition. While it only provides a bare bones biography of Kent, Distant Shores is very successful in piquing the reader’s curiosity about his fascinating life. After reading this book, I have an overwhelming desire to read Kent’s autobiography It’s Me, O Lord and get the details of his adventurous life straight from the horse’s mouth.
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Moby Dick, Chapter II (Harbor), 1930

Conception Bay, Newfoundland, 1915

Artist in Greenland, c. 1935/1960

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