In Review: The Prints of Rockwell Kent: A Catalogue Raisonné

by Scott R. Ferris




The underlying problem with The Prints of Rockwell Kent: A Catalogue Raisonné -- both the Original and the Revised Editions -- is that it lacks CR foundations. What I mean by this is, the book has its roots in a general anthology that the artist and his friend, Carl Zigrosser, published in 1933 -- "Rockwellkentiana: Few Words and Many Pictures by R. K. and, Carl Zigrosser, A Bibliography and List of Prints." According to the book's subtitle, it was never meant to contain anything more than a descriptive list of the prints.

Zigrosser, as we know, was a print specialist: a former director at Weyhe Gallery in New York and head of the print department at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He left his enormous Kent collection (hundreds of drawings, prints, etc.) to PMA and his papers -- including his correspondence with Kent -- to the University of Pennsylvania.

If we take the subtitle literally, and we should, Rockwellkentiana provides a mere list of prints, not a CR. Moreover, Zigrosser's accompanying comments, he titled "Notes," shed light on Kent's printing and spare documenting processes. "The dates given [to the prints in the checklist] are those of execution, which sometimes do not coincide with the dates of publication," Zigrosser wrote, and "an exception to this has been made in the case of small and relatively unimportant woodcuts, which are arranged in a separate chronological list numbered with letters of the alphabet." Regarding wood engravings, Zigrosser said: "Mr. Kent...print[s] not from the original block, but from an electro-type of the original block, carefully worked over with a burin by the artist." (Identifying which of Kent's prints were produced in this manner and which were produced directly from the engraver's block, should have been clarified at the very top of each catalogue entry.) With regards to the common misidentification of Kent's various media, Zigrosser wrote: "In order to avoid any possible confusion that might ensue between the true woodcuts and certain signed reproductions of brush drawings, a list of the reproductions with dimensions is given below."

In essence, Zigrosser was offering an outline of how, and how not to catalogue Kent's work. Without heeding his warnings, Burne Jones modeled his catalogue after Zigrosser's list, which became the template for Mr. Rightmire as well. Therefore, the problems that we face in the Original Edition are compounded in the Revised, and they begin with the very first entry.

Burne Jones began his CR with the wood engraving, Blue Bird (DBJ#1). Mr. Rightmire began the Revised Edition with a print that Mr. Wien owns, The Christmas Tree (see Jake Milgram Wien, "Rockwell Kent's First Print," Print Quarterly, Vol. XVIII, 2001). Though Mr. Wien argues, in his Print Quarterly review of the Revised Edition (Vol. XX, 2003), that the Burne Jones text should have been reorganized, he does not stray from his conclusion that The Christmas Tree is Kent's first print.

Mr. Wien also differs with Burne Jones on how The Christmas Tree was produced -- the medium Kent employed: Mr. Wien believes it to be a woodcut; Burne Jones, a linoleum cut. It appears that this print was pulled by hand, therefore, the grain of a wood block should be visible; conversely, the smooth surface of a linoleum block does have the propensity to smudge, as is evident in the illustrations provided in both the Original and the Revised Editions. Considering the available evidence -- drawn from partial and full artist's proofs (the location of the block is still unknown) -- the linoleum cut theory seems logical.

In Mr. Wien's review of the Revised Edition, he argues that Mother and Child at Monhegan (circa 1910), an etching on copper, and Punch and Judy Show (1914), a woodcut, would be, had Burne Jones followed Peter Morse's CR of John Sloan's prints as a model, catalogued as Kent's first two prints. I would agree with him except for the fact that Frederic Dorr Steele (1873-1944), in his article "Veteran Illustrator Goes Reminiscent," (The Colophon, No. 3, September, 1939), illustrates his reminiscences of Kent with a small block he captioned, "First wood block by Rockwell Kent." The illustration depicts a lone tree at waters edge before a jut of land that could arguably be the island, Manana, just off Monhegan Island (a believable Kent composition). Burne Jones knew of this earlier "wood block," but when, and if he came to any conclusions regarding its dating or authenticity, is not known.

We have determined that chronology must be addressed in a newly revised CR. Another issue that needs to be revisited is, what defines the various print media?; below are a few examples that warrant this scrutiny. 1.) There is some argument that the series of images for The Bridge of San Luis Rey (DBJ#40-49) should not be considered lithographs, though these works are composed by the artist using transfer and direct marking processes. 2.) Kent's involvement in the development of the engravings Library of Congress Bookplate (DBJ#120) and S. C. Johnson & Son, Inc. (DBJ#121), went no further than providing the design; the transfer and engraving was done by others. 3.) King Street (DBJ#154; rightly omitted from the Revised Edition) has been determined by this author (see Print Quarterly, Vol. XIX, 2002) to be by the hand of another Rockwell Kent (1858-1934).

The appendix "Posthumous Prints" presents its own set of problems. For various reasons, several of these compositions cannot be considered "posthumous prints"; among them are the linecuts Madonna and Child and Portrait of Me Trapped (P12), and the photo-silkscreens Forest Pool (P4) and The Lovers (P5). These works are reproductions of drawings and wood engravings that were commissioned by the Rockwell Kent Legacies. The prudent CR editor would have taken Zigrosser's advice to prepare a separate list of reproductions.

"Posthumous Prints" also raises ethical questions. The Kent Legacies -- at the time, consisting of the artist's widow, Sally Kent Gorton, and her second husband, John Gorton, an ex-minister -- authorized the reworking and printing of several blocks. To be more explicit, the Legacies allowed Letterio Calapai to restore the cracked block referred to as "Embarkation" (P7), re-glue and execute what he considered Kent's final cuts might be on the block known as "Contemplation" (P8) and print small editions from each of these. It is believed that neither one of these blocks had been proofed, in their final state, by the artist.

Calapai was aggressive in his desire to work with Kent's prints. One altercation between the Legacies -- Sally Gorton and myself (following his death I succeeded John Gorton as director of the Kent Legacies) -- and Calapai, put a stop to the authorized publishing of Kent's works.

While on the topic of works attributed to Kent, I will quickly address the matter of "Twenty-eight Drawings by Kent Cut in Wood by J. J. Lankes" (see Appendix III, in the Original Edition, V in the Revised). As the title of this appendix suggests, it was believed that Kent drew the images for these woodcuts, sending the designs on to Lankes to cut and print. Recent evidence suggests that this apparently was not the case: Kent did indeed draw compositions on maple wood engraving blocks but Lankes did not cut them. A few of these blocks came into the hands of a Nashville (TN) collector, through the Lankes family. Two of the blocks include ten pencil and ink drawings and one sketch that were commissioned by Doremus and Company (an advertising agency). According to Lankes' detailed ledger -- a copy of which the Nashville collector has also obtained -- there were 30 woodcuts for Doremus, as well as, a set of eight prints based upon drawings from Kent's book, Wilderness (proofs of seven of these prints are also in the Nashville collection). In his ledger Lankes indicates that he redrew several of Kent's designs and photographically transferred others onto blocks before cutting them.

There remain several factual errors and omissions in both editions. To acknowledge them all would be to submit the full revision that this CR requires. Therefore, I will briefly mention a few examples in four categories.

-- Titles. 1.) Mr. Rightmire refers to Child and Star (DBJ#19) and Mother and Child at Monhegan (DBJ#153 and RR#P1) as Child and Bird and Mother and Daughter at Monhegan, respectfully, without an explanation for the re-titling. 2.) The "Title Index" does not include titles for the "print patterns and designs on cloth," and the appendix by the same name does not include a list of the additional designs that are in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (The "Print Patterns and Designs on Cloth" appendix begs us to revisit the questions: What constitutes a print and/or what should or should not be included in a CR?)

-- Omissions and errors. 1.) Regarding preliminary drawings: the drawing for Pinnacle (DBJ#20) -- known to many Kent collectors as the (partial) cover illustration for The Kent Collector (Vol. IV, No. 3, Winter, 1977) -- is owned by this author; a drawing for Resting (DBJ#36) is owned by The Art Gallery of Hamilton; and preliminary drawings for Girl on Cliff and (DBJ#57) and Self-portrait (DBJ#104) were recently auctioned on the internet. 2.) The maple engraver's block for the composition known as the Gerald Kelly bookplate -- see The Bookplates and Marks of Rockwell Kent (Pynson Printers, 1929, #21) -- is in the collection of the Rhode Island School of Design. (According to Don Roberts, in his book Rockwell Kent: The Art of the Bookplate -- see pages 33-35 -- the "bookplate itself was printed from an ink drawing"; it is now apparent that the bookplate originated from the wood engraving). 3.) The block for Flame (DBJ#24) is now in the collection of Boston Public Library. 4.) In the Original Edition Burne Jones refers to several printing blocks and plates, as well as sketches and drawings, that were in the Kent collection in Au Sable Forks, NY. It is believed that many of these are now in the Kent Collection at Plattsburgh State Art Museum. The museum's curator, Cecilia Esposito, states that she has not had the time to catalogue this aspect of their new holdings. 5.) References to Kent's print exhibitions, and related publicity, have been omitted, for the most part.

-- Additional or incorrect references. 1.) Kent's prints appeared in numerable publications during his lifetime, though not all are accounted for in either edition of the CR; below I cite a few additional references. Blue Bird is illustrated in Art and Artists of Today (Sept.-Oct. 1937); Twilight of Man (DBJ#6) is illustrated in Printer's Ink Monthly (March, 1927) and The Golden Book Magazine (March, 1929); Masthead (DBJ#7) appears in The Spur (December 1, 1928), Foreboding (DBJ#9) is illustrated in You, Who Love Life, A Book of Poems by Helen Sobell (1956). 2.) It should be noted that some book references seem to be incorrect, due to the fact that variant editions did not always follow the same pagination (or include all of the same illustrative material). For example, Flame (DBJ#24), is illustrated facing page 460 in one edition and on 544 in another, in 101 of the World's Greatest Books; 3.) Starlight illustrates "My Unconquerable Soul," not "Invictus," in The Book of Noble Thoughts. 4.) The color proofs (marked, "t.p." -- trial proof -- and "a.p." -- artist proof) for Sermilik Fjord that were in the collection in Au Sable Forks, NY, were sold during my tenure at the estate. This transaction would be on file in my early papers, that are now part of the collection at Plattsburgh State. 5.) Oarsman (DBJ#86) was not reproduced in Rhythm (No. 3, 1959) but the similar print, Drifter (DBJ#92) was (there are additional discrepancies regarding the prints illustrated in Rhythm that are not accounted for in both editions). 6.) The study for Sledging (DBJ#99) could likewise have been a study for the oil painting by the same name (see illustration in Rockwellkentiana). 7.) Self-portrait is the cover illustration for American Book Collector (Summer, 1964). 8.) The oil painting Heavy, Heavy Hangs Over Thy Head, not the lithograph by the same name, is reproduced on the cover of Rally for Peace and Disarmament, and as illustrative matter in Kent's autobiography, It's Me O Lord (Dodd, Mead & Co., 1955) and in American Book Collector. The painting and lithograph are not "similar in all respects...with the exception of the incised title at the bottom," as stated in both CRs. On the contrary, the appearance of the title in both works is one of their similarities. The details are the devil: the child is covered by a blanket in the lithograph and naked in the painting; there is a teddy bear in bed with the child in the painting, not so in the lithograph; there are curtains at the windows in the painting, not so in the lithograph; the landscape in the lithograph appears to be a composite whereas an Adirondack landscape serves as the backdrop in the painting, etc.

-- Incorrect dates. 1.) Twilight of Man appears in the May, 1922 issue of Century Magazine, not May 22, 1926. 2.) August XXIII, MCMXXVII (DBJ#13) appears in the June 23, 1936 issue of New Masses, not August 23, 1936. 3.) Precipice (DBJ#15) appears in the April, 1928 issue of Harpers Magazine, not April, 1929.

There are no less than 50 additional illustrative references that have not been cited (publications that reproduced Kent's prints during his life time), and this does not include the mass media or exhibition brochure and catalog illustrations, or the innumerable Soviet publications in which Kent's work appeared. At least a half dozen dates and several general errors have not been corrected.

It was made abundantly clear to me recently, by a Kent collector, that there are several independent Kent scholars or "students of Kent," but never has this group of individuals, who know each other, worked together. This problem is not uncommon in the world of art research and publication. It is now obvious that the Revised Edition could have benefited from a broader cooperative effort, and that The Prints of Rockwell Kent still needs to be amended.

© Scott R. Ferris


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