Like Harry Clarke, Rockwell Kent wasn’t an illustrator in the strictest sense of the word, his talents being successfully applied to a number of mediums including printmaking, painting and writing. Its his line illustrations and prints I love best, however.
Born in 1882, Kent found fame as a painter in the early “oughts” of the 20th century. His landscape paintings are generally considered quite special, illuminating nature and its power in a very sumptuous way. His work is mostly attributed to the American Social Realist movement.
What drew me to Kent, however, was his technique with printing and illustrating. His pen and ink work is absolutely stunning and like nothing else I’ve seen. Call it Art Deco, humanist, sensationalist, propagandistic, stark, deliberate or luminescent. Whatever it is, his style absolutely owns itself and his age. It’s thoroughly unique and relegates any homage to looking simply like “copying.” It’s a little like Gorey in that way.
According to the Plattsburgh State University of New York webpage devoted to Kent, his work stands out because of its use of symbolism. They write:
“Humanity was the hero in most of his prints, which are symbolic representations of certain intuitions about life’s destiny and the meaning of existence. Many of the prints seem to depict humanity in a struggle to capture ultimate reality, to penetrate into the mystery of the dark night of the universe, and to discover the reasons for existence.”
Ken’t illustrations are so evocative and original that they actually contributed to the renewed interest of a classic work of literature. Asked in 1926 to illustrate Two Years Before the Mast a sea story by Richard Henry Dana, Jr., Kent offered instead to illustrate a reissue of Moby Dick. This version not only cemented his fame to thousands who wouldn’t have otherwise heard of him, but exponentially increased interest in Melville’s classic. I think it’s fair to say that Kent’s otherworldly illustrations were perhaps the principal reason for this. Reprints can be found cheaply, but I’ve seen the 1st issue and it’s just gorgeous. If you’d like to pick up an original edition, be prepared to pay in excess of $10,000.
As with The Eric Carle Museum, I missed out on a great opportunity to spend some time with Kent’s work while I was in Massachusetts. Off Route 6A in Cape Cod, literally down the street from the Gorey House, sits the Cape Cinema, a lovely movie theater on its own, but even lovelier for its Rockwell Kent ceiling mural that was commissioned from him in 1930. Why did I miss out on this? I guess I was too busy with Gorey. Next year I’ll visit.