It has been 100 years since famed artist Rockwell Kent came to Winona to oversee the construction of two Georgian Revival mansions in Pleasant Valley. The young artist later painted some of the most striking images of the 20th century, traveled the world, wrote books about his adventures, and drew the illustrations for the 1930 edition of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.
A centennial celebration is planned to honor Kent early next year (see adjacent story), and the Winona Post will continue to explore his story in the months ahead. It is a wild tale, full of adventures in arctic lands, overseas journeys in pirate-filled waters, a shipwreck off the coast of Greenland and torrid love affairs that spanned continents.
While Kent was many things—architect, carpenter, author, activist—above all he was an artist. His paintings and illustrations have been hailed as some of the most influential and groundbreaking of the era, showing rugged seascapes, frozen mountainsides, and beauty in the harshest corners of the world.
“He traveled all over the world, and of course, wherever he went, he painted,” said fan and Winona centennial celebration organizer Taff Roberts. Roberts fell in love with Kent’s artwork in 1979, when he spotted one of his paintings on Monhegan Island in Maine.
Monhegan Island was one of Kent’s favorite spots, a place where he would often go after lengthy foreign travels. He was the son of a lawyer who played the flute and a mother who frowned upon his aspirations as an artist. When Kent’s father died, his mother urged him to study architecture rather than art in order to support his family.
Kent alternated between art and architectural school as a young man, and came to Winona in 1912 to oversee the construction of the Pleasant Valley mansions at the age of 30. Before he left Winona, there was an exhibition of his paintings at the Winona Public Library. “Among the younger present-day painters he stands as one of the foremost men with the brush and canvas,” the Winona Independent said of the show at the time. “He, like many noted painters and artists, declines to commercialize his work.”
Kent took the funds he had raised from his work in Winona and returned to his home state, New York, then quickly boarded a freighter for Newfoundland. Kent had already traveled to Newfoundland and Greenland, and later lived on a nearly uninhabited island with his nine-year-old son in Alaska.
These rough seascapes were often the subject of Kent’s paintings. His travels brought him to remote villages, and his art explored the images of native houses, sled dogs, and rarely-seen mountains. New York Times critic James Huneker said of his work, “But he knocks you off your pins before you can sit down with these broad, realistic, powerful representations of weltering seas, men laboring in boats, rude rocky headlands and snowbound landscapes.”
However, when Kent needed money to support his traveling and family, he sometimes took on a commercial job. He provided illustrations for Canterbury Tales, and drafted the logo for Random House Books. His composer friend, Carl Ruggles, whom he met in Winona, posed as Captain Ahab for the 1930 edition of Moby Dick. Random House was, according to documentarian Frederick Lewis, so stunned by the quality of his illustrations for the novel that Melville’s name was omitted from the cover of the first books printed!
Kent published drawings in Vanity Fair magazine under a pen name, and drew advertisements for big brands such as Rolls Royce. He used pen and ink images for some of the drawings, along with various relief print media. Oil painting, however, proved to be one of his most-loved media, and throughout his life he was known as a prolific artist.
In 1956, Kent attempted to donate many of his paintings to a museum in Maine. Sen. Joe McCarthy, however, believed Kent to be a communist (not entirely untrue), and contacted the museum to warn officials not to take the work of a traitor. Kent was furious, and gave the majority of his paintings to the Soviet Union in 1959.
“He wanted the people to own his work,” said Roberts. “He didn’t want it in private collections; he wanted it where people could see it.”
Many of Kent’s paintings and illustrations will be on display in Winona during the upcoming festival, but there are some that have been lost for decades, explained Roberts. Kent was known to trade or sell his paintings, and traded two valuable scenes while he was in Winona. Both were traded to a Winona pharmacist; one was recently rediscovered and will be on display during the celebration. The other, known as “The Sleigh Ride,” has not yet been located, and Roberts said he believes there are other, valuable Kent pieces still out there, undiscovered. “We know they are out there, somewhere,” he said, recounting a recent “Antiques Roadshow” in which a Kent painting was appraised at over $300,000. “There are probably other paintings that were traded and we just haven’t been able to find them,” said Roberts. “They could be hanging in somebody’s guest bedroom, or down in someone’s basement. They’re out there, somewhere.”
Kent’s images of remote beauty in Newfoundland, Alaska, Tierra del Fuego, Ireland, and Greenland brought the world to his fans, and his unique combination of realism and haunting symbolism helped capture the wonder he found. Through the books he wrote about his adventures, Kent was known as a nature lover, and his book about his time in Alaska was compared to Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.”
Kent, himself, explained what he wanted from his art: “I don’t want petty self-expression. I want the elemental, infinite thing; I want to paint the rhythm of eternity.”