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What brought struggling artist Rockwell Kent to Alaska?

  • Author: Doug Capra
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published January 25, 2015

Rockwell Kent always had a lot on his mind, and he had much to think about when he left New York in the summer of 1918 on the way to Alaska with his 9-year-old son, Rocky.

Born in 1882, he was 36 years old in 1918, married with five children, an avid socialist and a painter with a desire to write. He had always wanted to be an artist, but to compromise with his family he studied architecture at Columbia University. New York's dynamic art world distracted him, and he studied painting on the side under William Merritt Chase, Robert Henri, Kenneth Hayes Miller and Abbot Thayer. His classmates and friends included artists John French Sloan, William Glackens, George Bellows, George Luks and Edward Hopper.

They became known as the "Ashcan School," urged to get their hands dirty exploring and painting back-alley and gritty urban life. Kent had other ideas. He had worked as a lobsterman and laborer on Monhegan Island off the Maine coast while reading philosophy and perfecting his painting skills. He couldn't stand the bohemian socialist salons of New York, where intellectuals with clean fingernails and shinny cufflinks philosophized about the working class.

Many women

On the island Kent met his first wife, Kathleen Whiting, and started a family. Henri had taught him that true artists don't do art in sterile studios. Instead, they live as fully as possible and experience everything. Great art then becomes the fruit of a full life lived authentically. Rockwell Kent took the advice literally.

He once wrote that he discovered sex late, and spent the rest of his life making up for it. Part of life's experience for him was the company of women — many women. He kept no secrets from Kathleen, expecting her to accept his affairs as merely his artistic experience. It remained a contentious part of their relationship and reached a near-crisis point during his Alaska sojourn.

Before coming to Alaska, Kent had made two trips to Newfoundland, where he hoped to start an art school. These kinds of hostile northern climates dragged him to them like a magnet would a piece of steel. His second trip to Brigus in 1914 with his four children and pregnant wife coincided with the outbreak of World War I. Here was a perfect place to paint, yet unwise for a socialist fluent in German, fond of dangerous practical jokes and outspoken enough to express his disdain toward what he considered a provincial British outpost reeking with fanatic patriotism. His behavior arose suspicions, and his obtuse responses caused anger.

He and his family — Kathleen pregnant and the children ill —– were ordered out of Newfoundland. Back in New York, he worked at an architectural firm, painting on the side — frustrated, angry, fed up with a money-hungry world at war, battling with his troubled marriage, sometimes even considering ending his life.

Unable to find solace with Kathleen, Kent turned to a beautiful blue-eyed, golden-haired German-born Ziegfeld Follies showgirl named Hildegarde Hirsche, He set her up in his New York City apartment far away from his wife and children. By 1917 he had sold a few paintings and found a patron willing to sponsor another adventure.

Time of their lives

Alaska was in the news with plans for a new Government Railroad from Seward to Fairbanks. At first he wanted to take his wife and children with him, but after the Newfoundland debacle, Kathleen refused. Then he tried to get Hildegarde to go, but she was hesitant as well. He fought with Kathleen to take his oldest son, Rocky. His wife protested but Kent prevailed. The boy needed toughening up, Kent thought, and Alaska would be just the place.

A train ride across the country followed by a steamship voyage north led them to a brief stay in Yakutat. But that was too wild for Kent with Rocky along. He heard about the town of Seward on the edge of island-dotted Resurrection Bay. He and Rocky arrived there in August 1918 and soon met 71-year-old Lars Matt Olson who ran a fox farm and goat ranch on nearby Fox Island in partnership with T.W. Hawkins of Brown and Hawkins General Store. By late August, they had moved to the island.

Rocky would never forget his months on Fox Island, considering it perhaps the best time in his life. The experience was life-changing for Kent as well. The art he produced in Alaska, and the book he wrote about that adventure, finally gave him the fame and recognition he had craved. He would soon become one of the best-known artist-adventurers in the world, also known for his leftist politics. After his confrontation with Sen. Joseph McCarthy in 1953 ended his ability to earn a living, he settled in at his upstate New York farm and painted the Adirondacks, observing his books slowly go out of print and his dramatic realistic style devoured by the popularity of the abstract expressionists.

He died in 1971.

Doug Capra is a Seward writer who wrote forewords for two Rockwell Kent books, "Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska," and "Northern Christmas." His play about Rockwell Kent, "And Now the World Again," was staged as a readers' theater workshop production this fall.