In 1905, Robert Henri, leader of the New York realists called the Ashcan School and an inspirational teacher, encouraged Rockwell Kent to visit Monhegan Island, a rugged land mass 10 miles (16 kilometers) off the Maine coast. Henri had worked one summer on Monhegan, and intuited that Kent,...
In 1905, Robert Henri, leader of the New York realists called the Ashcan School and an inspirational teacher, encouraged Rockwell Kent to visit Monhegan Island, a rugged land mass 10 miles (16 kilometers) off the Maine coast. Henri had worked one summer on Monhegan, and intuited that Kent, twenty-three years old and one of the most energetic and talented of his students, would find the scenery and hardy lifestyle there to his liking. Kent enthusiastically adopted Monhegan as his base for the next five years, building a house and studio there. He wrote in his autobiography, “Monhegan: its rockbound shores, its towering headlands, the thundering surf with gleaming crests and emerald eddies, its forest and its flowering meadowlands . . . it was enough to start me off to such feverish activity in painting as I had never known.”  Kent often stayed on the island beyond September, when most artists left. Among the oils that Kent painted of Monhegan were four pictures of the headlands in winter: Maine Headland, Winter, (1906, State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg), Maine Coast (about 1907, Farnsworth Art Museum, Rockland, Maine), Maine Coast (1907, Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio), all depicting Blackhead, one of the large cliffs on the east side of the island, and the MFA’s painting, Maine Coast, Winter (1909), which probably portrays the same headland from a different angle. All four show the bluff covered with snow, a band of dark green pine trees, and a glimpse of the ocean beyond under bluish-gray skies. Maine Coast, Winter was made a few years later than the other works and is the most abstract. It differs from the others in its foreground, where Kent rendered snow-covered evergreens rather than a snowy field. Kent’s evocative representations of Monhegan under a blanket of icy blue-white snow reveal the influence of one of his other teachers, Abbott Handerson Thayer [1982.539], who painted multiple pictures of Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire during winter with bands of spruce trees and expanses of snow in the foregrounds. Kent had served as Thayer’s studio assistant in Dublin, New Hampshire, at the foot of Mount Monadnock, in 1903. Thayer reinforced Kent’s reverence for nature and for the literary works of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Like other landscape painters of the early twentieth century, Kent was also conscious of the dean of American art, Winslow Homer, who was living in Prout’s Neck, Maine, south of Monhegan. Homer painted his own last heroic seascape, Driftwood [1993.564] in 1909, the same year Kent painted Maine Coast, Winter. Two of Kent’s favorite themes were also subjects to which Homer was devoted—winter and fishermen—and the bleakness and gray skies of Maine Coast, Winter resonate with Homer’s Maine landscapes, which often feature the unforgiving cold of the winter season.  In addition to painting on Monhegan, Kent also attempted to live like the islanders, finding work as a handyman, carpenter, and lobster fisherman. His pursuits on Monhegan set the pattern for the rest of his life. He continued to seek out cold, remote areas—such as Newfoundland, Greenland, Alaska, and Tierra del Fuego—in which to work, and he tried to adapt to the lives of the natives in each place. Kent’s activities on Monhegan resulted in personal growth, and his painting style matured as well. The large areas of color and painterly brushwork of Kent’s early work, as seen in Maine Coast, Winter, later evolved into a manner of painting notable for its smooth finish, stylized forms, and broad masses. By the mid-1920s, the eminent collector Josiah Spaulding, who had developed an interest in contemporary American art through his association with the Boston Art Club, had purchased Maine Coast, Winter. Through Spaulding, Kent’s influence spread to a younger generation. In 1926, the young artist and Harvard sophomore Fairfield Porter [1997.254, 1979.178] decided to make Kent, then sufficiently well known, the subject of a research paper. Porter visited Spaulding, where he saw Maine Coast, Winter, which he “liked very much.”  Porter, who, like Kent, became a realist painter and an accomplished writer, went on to depict the Maine shoreline in numerous pictures and was another important link in the chain of artists from Homer to Henri to Kent who found inspiration in the rugged coast of Maine. Maine Coast, Winter was given to the Museum with the rest of Spaulding’s collection in 1948. Notes 1. Rockwell Kent, It’s Me O Lord: The Autobiography of Rockwell Kent (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1955), 120. 2. See Bruce Robertson, Reckoning with Winslow Homer: His Late Paintings and Their Influence (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), 103. 3. Jake Milgram Wien, Rockwell Kent: The Mythic and the Modern, exh. cat. (New York and Portland, Me.: Hudson Hills Press in association with the Portland Museum of Art, 2005), 25. Janet L. Comey
Lower left: Rockwell Kent, 1909
1909, the artist. John T. Spaulding (1870-1948), Boston; 1948, bequest of John T. Spaulding to the MFA. (Accession Date: June 3, 1948)
Bequest of John T. Spaulding
By permission of the Plattsburgh State Art Museum, Plattsburgh College Foundation, Rockwell Kent Gallery and Collection.