Urban Realism and the American Scene
Rockwell Kent, Cranberrying, Monhegan
The multitalented Rockwell Kent was a skilled painter, printmaker, illustrator, photographer, and filmmaker as well as an intrepid traveler, writer, and political activist. A contentious idealist who rejected modernism’s focus on the artist’s inner life, he favored a style he described as “romantic realism” to make his work accessible to a wide audience. In Cranberrying, Monhegan, tiny figures are scattered across a cranberry bog below a grassy ridge and a veil of thick blue-gray clouds. The artist’s application of paint in broad, sweeping strokes complements the boundless horizontal landscape, in which the harvesters appear vulnerable to this island’s mutable weather. In his paintings of Monhegan, a popular summertime destination in Maine where he lived and worked from 1905 to 1910, Kent depicted an isolated locale whose inhabitants come face-to-face with elemental nature.
Learn more about this painting on the Terra Foundation website.
In Rockwell Kent’s Cranberrying, Monhegan, people pick fruit in an open landscape: between land and sky they labor in a bog on this remote, wild, and wind-blown island off the coast of Maine. Humankind dissolves under a menacing blue and gray sky. The scene is calm, but the painting hints at an oncoming storm. Kent first came to Monhegan—an island of less than one square mile that was home to a fishing village and a small artists’ colony—from New York City in 1905 at the age of 22. The works he made there, this one among them, were early revelations of his gift for capturing the tenor of isolated places.
In subsequent decades, Kent established himself as the premier painter of coastlines and oceans throughout the Americas, working in rarely visited areas and depicting landscapes largely devoid of people. From the cliffs and coastal rocks, houses and boats of Monhegan, he moved west to Resurrection Bay in the Gulf of Alaska in 1918, then south to the Strait of Magellan at the tip of South America in 1922, before going north to Greenland in the summer of 1930, where he weathered the brutal winter of 1931. He made paintings of these desolate places, as well as numerous drawings and wood engravings of persons, objects, and detailed scenes of those in transit to the uttermost ends of the earth.
Throughout his career, Kent considered himself a “romantic realist.” Across two-and-a-half decades and thousands of miles of travel north and south, he combined elements of naturalism with a modernist tendency to critique both objective and subjective experience. His peripatetic travels, his voluminous writings on a range of topics, together with his paintings, drawings, wood engravings, and photographs are representative of the possibilities available to artists in the early twentieth century for experience, media, and technologies, as well as political and social understandings of the world and the role of art within it. There are resemblances between Kent’s aims and those of other artists and writers: in his 1920 book Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska, Kent quoted the British poet and printmaker William Blake (1757–1827) and enthused over Blake’s “intense and illuminating fervor,”Rockwell Kent, Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1920), 82. a quality echoed in the vivid prose of Kent’s travelogues, including Wilderness and Voyaging Southward of the Strait of Magellan (1924).
Cranberrying may be an autobiographical painting, as many of Kent’s works were—a portrait of quiet and solitude wrapped around a small convulsion of human life. “The only things that are far away are those that we do not know how to see,” sang Argentine folk guitarist Atahualpa Yupanqui (1908–1992) in “Distancia.” Continually shifting his focus from the macro to the micro, Kent collapsed the distance between his viewers and the far-flung landscapes he traversed and depicted.
Associate Professor, Universidad Austral de Chile, Valdivia