Art: Two artists' response to a Maine island

Rockwell Kent's "Wreck of the D.T. Sheridan."
Rockwell Kent's "Wreck of the D.T. Sheridan."
Posted: June 24, 2013

Born 64 years apart in different centuries, Jamie Wyeth and Rockwell Kent are distinctly different artists. Yet they share a deep familiarity with and affection for a small island called Monhegan, 12 miles off the coast of mid-Maine.

It's not just that Wyeth and Kent painted on isolated, picturesque Monhegan; scores of American artists have done that, beginning in the mid-19th century.

Living there at different times for extended periods, they became intimate with the granite-ribbed, seagirt community to a degree that eludes casual or seasonal visitors.

The artists never met, although they corresponded toward the end of Kent's life - he died in 1971 at 88. Wyeth, born in 1946, didn't visit the island until the mid-1950s. By then, Kent had ended his second island residency and moved to a farm in New York state.

Wyeth owns a house on Monhegan; it's one that Kent built for his mother. He collects Kent's art and has lent some to an exhibition at the Brandywine River Museum that celebrates their shared experience. The Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine - the other "Wyeth museum" - initiated the traveling show last year; Brandywine has doubled its size to 37 paintings and works on paper.

The exhibition contains paintings from both of Kent's island periods - 1905 to 1910 and 1947 to 1953 - although the early years predominate. The drawings are all from the early years.

Stylistically, his work over such a time span displays remarkable consistency. Like the painters of the Hudson River movement, Kent responded to nature's primal forces, which he expressed in high-contrast, crisply delineated forms, and dense, saturated colors. His horizons are razor-sharp, his water and skies the purest cobalt.

We see the essential Kent clearly in his iconic oil Toilers of the Sea, dominated by an imposing black headland, painted in 1907, and in Wreck of the D.T. Sheridan, painted 42 years later. There isn't an ounce of sentiment in either, just cold, precise realism.

Kent was drawn to nature more than to people, more to a broad philosophical overview than to symbolic details. This reflects his picaresque life as an adventurer who sought out geographical extremes by living briefly in such preindustrial locales as Newfoundland, Alaska, Greenland, and Tierra del Fuego.

Wyeth, by contrast, is far more romantic. His portion of the exhibition covers more than 45 years, beginning in the mid-1960s, and his style shifts noticeably over that span.

Earlier watercolors such as Hekking House (1968) and Boundary Pins, Monhegan (1974) are realist slices of life, specific to the island without conveying the overall ambience of the place.

Like his late father, Andrew, Jamie often looks inward from the landscape by tapping into his emotions, rather than outward as Kent did. His pictures are full of personal references, like his affection for animals such as dogs and seagulls. The more recent ones, much more loosely brushed than ever, incorporate dream imagery.

Perhaps the most striking example of this latest turn is the 2009 painting Sea Watchers, in which Jamie portrays his father and grandfather, Andrew and N.C. Wyeth, on a cliff overlooking a roiling surf. Behind them, standing apart, are Winslow Homer, America's premier marine painter, and Jamie's friend Andy Warhol.

If that seems an incongruous group, consider that the painting probably represents four influences on Wyeth's development - five, if we count the island.

The exhibition mixes and juxtaposes these two divergent responses to Monhegan: one specific and focused on existential grandeur (Kent's), the other a more poetic transmutation of how the island's environment stimulated memory and imagination (Wyeth's).

I wouldn't try to make more of this show than it suggests about the vagaries of coincidence and the random intersections of lives.

Kent's leftist politics (Lenin Peace Prize, 1967) made him something of pariah in his late years. The opportunity to revisit the power of his intensely reductive oils was enough satisfaction for me.

Heart of Gold Likewise, Part Two of the exhibition "Creative Hand, Discerning Heart" at the James A. Michener Art Museum should be approached cautiously, lest one become entangled in its thesis.

"Hand/Heart" is essentially a juror-selected group show of 11 Philadelphia-area artists gathered under the rubric of how artists connect with one another formally and informally, and how such connections help artists grow.

Well, maybe sometimes, but cross-pollination, if and when it exists, is hard to recognize and document. Ultimately, it's not as important as what individuals produce as mature work.

Most of the artists on view, such as Bruce Pollock, Bill Scott, and Paula Winokur, are among the most talented to have emerged in the city over the last generation or two. A few of the 11 don't belong in this company, but they're easy to spot. Enjoy the others for their individual merit, and ignore the didactics.


All About Connections

"Jamie Wyeth, Rockwell Kent, and Monhegan," Brandywine River Museum, Route 1, Chadds Ford, through Nov. 17. 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily. Admission: $12 general; $8, 65 and older; $6,students and ages 6 through 12. Free Sundays until noon. 610-388-2700 or www.brandywinemuseum.org

"Creative Hand, Discerning Heart," James A. Michener Art Museum, 138 S. Pine St., Doylestown, through Sept. 29. 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. Admission: $15, general; $13, seniors; $11, college students with valid I.D.; $7.50, ages 6 to 18. 215-340-9800 or www.michenerartmuseum.org


Contact Edward J. Sozanski at edward.sozanski@gmail.com.

"Art" by Edward J. Sozanski and "Galleries" by Edith Newhall appear on alternating Sundays.

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