Down East 2013 ©
By Ellen London
Painting courtesy of the Portland Museum of Art
“I’d like to be one of them,” remarked painter Rockwell Kent upon first encountering the fishermen of Monhegan Island. “I never in my life saw such a fine kind hearted set of people.”
Kent is one of an impressive group of early twentieth-century artists whose work is showcased in the Portland Museum of Art’s focal summer exhibit “Call of the Coast: Art Colonies of New England,” on display June 25 to October 12. All of the artists included in the show are former visitors or residents of New England’s most celebrated art colonies: Ogunquit and Monhegan Island in Maine, and Old Lyme and Cos Cob, Connecticut.
When Kent first visited Monhegan in 1905, he unknowingly became the forbearer of a revolution that would entice generations of future artists to set up their easels on the island’s rugged shores. He set out for the isle on the bidding of friend and mentor Robert Henri, under whom he had been studying for two years at the New York School of Art. Kent was immediately captured by the island, its dramatic and diverse scenery, and its friendly, down-home residents.
As Kent immersed himself in his painting and life on the island, the influence of his teachers dissipated. The personal and artistic growth that he underwent during this period was as much a product of his organic environs as it was of his newfound solitude.
It is remarkable, then, that Kent created one of his most famous paintings —Wreck of the D.T. Sheridan — after a thirty-year hiatus from his Monhegan home. The subject of the twenty-seven-by-forty-four-inch oil painting is one that many other artists before and after Kent found enthralling: the rusting remains of a steel tugboat that ran aground in Monhegan’s Lobster Cove in the midst of a dense fog in 1948. However, Kent’s signature craftsmanship makes the popular scene all his own. As Jessica Skwire Routhier describes in the exhibit’s catalogue, “[Wreck of the D.T. Sheridan] exemplifies [Kent’s] mature style in its intense palette, crisp forms, and emphatic two-dimensionality…None of the drama of [the shipwreck] is apparent in Kent’s image, yet in its skeletal stillness it powerfully conveys humanity’s subordination to the forces of nature.”
During his time on Monhegan, Kent created some of his most inspired and widely recognized works. He found inspiration in the island’s remote location and wild terrain, as well as in the resilience and self-sufficiency of the island’s residents. His untamed surroundings reminded him of the constant battle between man and the natural world. As a result, he strove to paint in a way that would awaken his viewers to natural beauty and the dignity of man within his landscape.
Kent’s experimentation with color, form, and dimension were typical of the modernist school to which he belonged, which also included the likes of artists Edward Hopper, George Bellows, and Kent’s teacher, Robert Henri. In fact, Monhegan and Ogunquit were both known as modernist colonies, in contrast to the softer palette and rigorous brushstrokes of the impressionists — John Henry Twachtman, Frederick Childe Hassam, Willard Leroy Metcalf— who painted scenes down the coast in Connecticut.
Whether they settled in the Pine Tree State or the Constitution State, the artists that called these coastal colonies home produced some of the most impressive and lasting artwork in the history of American art. Tom Denenberg, chief curator of the Portland Museum of Art, reflects on the significance of the Maine and Connecticut art colonies in bringing the Northeast to the forefront of American art: “When artists began to look at the coast, the Northeast came to stand for the rest of our country. Prior to that time, the story of art colonies was a warm-weather story.” Almost a century later, the Portland Museum of Art’s “Call of the Coast” honors these artists and their ardor for the shore.
For more information on the “Call of the Coast” exhibit, visit the Portland Museum of Art .