Above Picture: Rockwell Kent (1882-1971), Dogs Resting, 1937, oil on canvas, 34 x 44”, Gift of Sally Kent Gorton in memory of John Gorton, X1980.1.130. Photo courtsey of Plattsburgh State Art Museum.
Rockwell Kent Gallery
The Rockwell Kent Gallery is tucked into the back corner of the Feinberg Library on the SUNY Plattsburgh campus. The gallery hosts a permanent exhibition of Rockwell Kent's artwork that is meant to shed light on the art, literary merit, and commercial efforts of Kent. It portrays Kent’s growth as an artist, as well as his varied social and political interests.
Who is Rockwell Kent?
Rockwell Kent (1882-1971) was an American realist with a variety of artistic interests including architecture, painting, illustration, printmaking, and writing. His work was heavily influenced by his widespread travels. He was drawn to remote areas such as parts of Greenland, Alaska, and Newfoundland. He drew inspiration from nature’s grandeur and the relationship of humans to nature’s monumental forces.
Stepping into the gallery is like entering a visual narrative of Kent’s life. It is clear that the arrangement is intended to illustrate distinct stages of his life as defined by the places he lived and visited.
To the right of the entrance, the exhibition space opens up to grand cathedral ceilings and a spectacular arrangement of paintings. The paintings are hung in a unique manner, reminiscent of Early Modern cabinets of curiosity or the nineteenth century Salon shows in Paris. Paintings are hung two on top of each other, at different heights, and fit together like a puzzle.
Among the many paintings is Dog Resting. It depicts a scene common to Kent’s stay in Greenland. Three men and two sets of dog sled teams pause in the stark landscape. The human and canine lives are dwarfed by their formidable surroundings. The towering cliffs and vast fields of snow dominate the composition. This was a common theme for Kent – he was drawn to remote areas with little evidence of human civilization.
In his Greenland paintings, Kent illustrated dramatic, stage-like configurations of the arctic by capturing the majesty of the mountains and icebergs. The power of the landscape creates a sense of remoteness that is only intensified by the insignificant role played by the people in the foreground of the composition.
Kent traveled by dog-sled long distances in search of remote subjects. During the season when the sun never sets, Kent would leave the Inuit settlement and camp in complete isolation for several days at a time. He lived without regard to the time or routine.
The stories behind his Greenland paintings are just as fascinating as the compositions are stunning.
Four days before Kent’s 47th birthday, Kent set sail for Godthaab, a settlement in Greenland. It was a nine day and 600-mile journey. With Greenland in sight, the ship sought shelter from an impending storm. The protective fjord turned into a wind tunnel. Kent and his shipmates escaped unharmed but the boat was destroyed beyond repair. Kent wrote about his adventures in his book N by E.
Despite his ill-fated cruise, Kent longed to return to Greenland and experience the winter there. Two years later in 1931 he traveled to Ubekendt Island and settled in Igdlorssuit, a small settlement located 225 miles above the Arctic Circle. Kent built himself a home a respectable distance from the established town, but soon integrated himself in the community.
He recounted his second visit to Greenland in his novel Salamina. Kent didn’t waste any time and mailed the original manuscript directly from Igdorssuit. The manuscript arrived at the publishing offices wrapped in an odorous caribou skin – a provocative move representative of Kent’s bold personality.
These stories are only the tip of the iceberg. Each piece of artwork carries a unique story hidden in plain sight. The fun lies in uncovering and relaying those stories.
Plattsburgh State Art Museum
Plattsburgh State Art Museum exists to collect, study, preserve, exhibit, interpret, and publish original works of art. The museum is committed to advance the academic goals of the College and contribute to the cultural education of the northern New York & southern Canadian regions. The museum is open daily 12- 4pm and closed legal holidays. For more information, contact the museum office at 518-564-2474 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Or visit us at plattsburgh.edu/museum and Facebook.com/PlattsburghStateArtMuseum.