The Man Who Invented Monhegan
Monhegan Island didn't exist before Rockwell Kent arrived to paint it. Yes, there was an island with a fishing village off the coast of Maine - latitude 43?- 46? North, longitude 69?-19? West, to be precise - and it was a place with a deep and rich history that predated the sea voyages of Samuel de Champlain. Rockwell Kent (1882-1971) wasn't even the first artist to set up an easel on the cliffs of White Head in 1905; his mentor Robert Henri, among others, beat him to the punch. So how can one say that Rockwell Kent invented Monhegan? Easily. In just a few short years of work, the gifted and controversial artist created images so indelible it's now impossible to view Monhegan without thinking of them.
Doubters need only visit the Portland Museum of Art this summer to test this claim for themselves. From June 23 through October 16, the museum is presenting the most comprehensive exhibition of its kind commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the painter's arrival in Maine. Rockwell Kent: The Mythic and the Modern brings together more than 130 of his paintings, drawings, and prints from leading American and Russian institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. These works chart Kent's travels, from the Maine coast to ever more remote corners of the Western Hemisphere, including Newfoundland, Alaska, Tierra del Fuego, and Greenland. Together they tell the tale of a rebellious and adventurous life spent pushing boundaries - artistic, political, and personal.
Born in Tarrytown, New York, and educated at the New York School of Art, Rockwell Kent was just twenty-three when he arrived on Monhegan to work for Hiram Cazallis, the island well-driller. In his autobiography, It's Me, O Lord, he captures the exuberance of his first minutes exploring the island: White Head "was so vast, so beautiful and clear that day with the green grass and dandelions at my feet! And Black Head, its twin headland seen from there in all its mass and dignity of form, Black Head, its dark face splotched with gleaming guano!" Leave it to Rockwell Kent to find beauty in bird droppings.
The landscapes and seascapes that Kent made in Maine won him attention when he exhibited them back in New York in 1907. "Splendid big thoughts," raved the painter John Sloan. "Some like prayers to God." But despite his early critical success he would have to wait years for financial success. Pen and ink illustrations for books and magazines, from the leftist rabble-rouser The Masses to the jazz-age chronicle Vanity Fair, paid many of Kent's bills as he indulged his wanderlust.
In 1917 he sold his Monhegan home, determined to find a place that replicated the youthful joy he felt when he first set foot on the island. He searched around the globe and discovered many beautiful places. But it was Monhegan that had inspired him and it was to Monhegan that he eventually returned. By the time he bought back his original island house in 1946, he was an old but still vital man, with a reputation to equal his contemporaries, Edward Hopper and George Bellows. His associations with the socialist movement, in America and abroad, however, won him few friends during the Red-baiting era of Joseph McCarthy. Short of money and dogged by scandals, Kent was again forced to sell his Monhegan home, this time for good, in 1953. Today it is owned by artist Jamie Wyeth.
The house, on the hillside above Lobster Cove, is only one Maine legacy of Rockwell Kent. But as the new show at the Portland Museum of Art amply demonstrates, even more enduring are the paintings he made there on Monhegan of the place he himself helped create.