Sunday, November 26, 2006


The illustrator Rockwell Kent (1882 - 1971) loved humanity with great passion. Unfortunately, he was an utter jerk when it came to loving individual human beings.

Kent was famous for his illustrations for Moby Dick, Candide, Shakespeare and Chaucer. He was also the author of several acclaimed books, an explorer, an architect, a dairy farmer, a carpenter, a fisherman, a sailor and an outspoken advocate of socialism who was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize by the Soviet Union for his work to achieve peace and brotherhood.

Kent had many wild adventures around the world. He hiked through jungles and over mountains. He explored islands and traveled on freighter ships. Once he attempted to sail around Cape Horn (at the southern tip of South America) in a ramshackle life boat that he bought for a few dollars. Wrote one commentator:

This region, boasting probably the world's worst climate, is buffeted incessantly by winds, swiftly alternating with rain, hail and snow. It is the legendary graveyard of ships and sailors, and Kent [had] the half-formed idea of trying his mettle against the hazardous adventure of sailing "round the Horn."
He was shipwrecked in Greenland and Alaska and lived for extended periods of time north of the Arctic Circle in desolate places like Ubekendt Ejland (Unknown Island). But his first love was painting and he painted almost every day.

Kent's artistic mentor was the painter Abbott Thayer. While living as a guest in Thayer's house, Kent married Thayer's 17 year old niece over the objection of her family. Four months after the wedding, he resumed a love affair with an old flame. Kent went on to have torrid affairs with a variety of girlfriends while his devoted wife stayed at home and bore him five children. (When one of his girlfriends became pregnant, Kent and his wife had to sell everything they owned to pay her off.) When his fifth child was born, Kent decided that his wife's clinging ways were unbearable, so the couple divorced. Kent learned from this experience and made sure all of his future children were illegitimate. Kent's second wife, Frances, may have hoped Kent was willing to settle down because he built a dream house with her out in the country and named it "Asgaard" after the Norse home of the gods. But at the housewarming party that Kent and Frances held for their friends, Kent overheard someone planning a dangerous boat expedition to Greenland and immediately abandoned Frances and Asgaard for this new adventure. Kent did marry a third time, to a woman the age of his youngest daughter.

Kent courted these women using artwork and poetry, and he praised their beauty with great eloquence. He always felt bad (and a little surprised) when they took the news of his infidelity so hard. One former showgirl committed suicide, jumping to her death into the sea. Perhaps it would have been difficult for a wife to accompany Kent on his rugged travels. Kent recounted one particularly horrifying shipwreck in his autobiography, It's Me O Lord:

Against the hurricane that woke us, sweeping down off the lofty plateau of the inland ice... we could do nothing but... hang onto our anchor ropes. And once the anchors failed to hold, the game was up.
Kent's tiny boat capsized. He and his two companions dragged themselves to shore and trekked 36 hours over rugged terrain with no shelter before they stumbled across an Inuit fisherman. None of them spoke Inuit, yet Kent managed to negotiate food, shelter and a young Inuit native girl.

Even though Kent had no space for a wife on his journeys, he always managed to find room for his paints, brushes and canvases. Following the shipwreck mentioned above, Kent returned to salvage his art supplies and spent two months painting that "vast wonderland of sea and mountain."

I have long been fascinated by the selfishness of artists. Some artists place the demands of their art above the welfare of their family and friends. Sometimes the resulting art is so beautiful, the trade off seems worth it to those of us who aren't personally affected. But it is always difficult to draw a bright line between artists who make sacrifices to protect their art and those who are merely self centered. Through the generations, a lot of collateral damage has been caused by artists fighting for their artistic lives.

Kent lived to be 89. Despite all his advetures, he seemed to have had a wistful old age. In one of his books, he described a poem-song he had learned from the Eskimoes about an old man who remembers

old times when I had strength to cut and flay great beasts.

Three great beasts could I cut up while the sun slowly went his way across the sky.

A sick old man could no longer hope to hang onto a woman, so he wishes his

woman away in the house of another,

in the house of a man who may be her refuge, firm and sure as the strong winter ice.

Sad at heart, I wish her away in the house of a stronger protector now that I myself lack strength even to rise from where I lie.


Anonymous said...

I doubt, as you put it, that Kent was fighting for his artistic life. My opinion is that artists shouldn't be held to a different standard that the rest of us. I don't see anyone making excuses for businessmen and technical people who abuse drugs, have mental problems, or abuse other people. If the excuse is that the person in question is making some sort of contribution to society, then most of us have an could claim the same defense.

Most people who are great achievers are very focused to the point of obsession. Kent didn't seem to be the kind of person who valued relationships. He seemed to be more of a sociopath and adrenaline junky. I think his socialist idealism was more about his own desire to be and look superior than any sort of commitment to the common good (as is the case with any number of true believers). I think there is more than a hint of this emotional distance in his work, as all too often the figures seeem to be design elements rather than emotional actors.

In the end, I like his work. But its not as if the world couldn't go on without it. Its not much of an excuse for abusing other people. They're just paintings after all, for God's sake. People are more important than paintings.

Anonymous said...

Yea, more Artists in Love! More love, less war! (Ooooo, I think I'm having a flashback). Hey, wait a minute, this guy isn't in love, he's just a horny jerk. Brian, I agree with you wholeheartedly, and I don't even much care for his work. Chilly landscapes, chilly topics. Brrr, Kent makes me yearn for a warm fire, some grog and a sweet guy to share it with.

David Apatoff said...

Brian, in the end I agree with you about Kent but there are lots of other examples of artists who are a closer call. Norman Rockwell used to paint in his studio seven days a week while his neglected and depressed wives were hospitalized in mental institutions. Could Rockwell have accomplished such an enormous achievement without his devotion to his art? Andrew Wyeth became so preoccupied painting in the woods that he misplaced the son he was supposed to be minding.

As for me, I remember quite vividly the day I sat down at my easel to start a painting when I heard my brand new baby son gurgling and cooing in his crib in the next room. I asked myself whether anything that was about to take place on that canvas could possibly compete as a creative act with nurturing a new life. I set aside my painting to go play with my son, but I think the people who are put on this earth to be painters often answer that question differently.

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous/pcp, I think Kent was in love-- it's just a question of "with whom?" (or "what?") Obviously he had something that appealed to all these women. I've read some of his love notes and seen some of his art for these women. He was quite enthusiastic and I think these women were flattered to see themselves through his artist's eyes (at least at the beginning).

Anonymous said...


I read Rockwell's "My Adventures As An Illustrator" several years ago, so I am a bit familiar with your reference. It might just be that he was attracted to that type of woman. As far as being a workaholic, I'm sure he worked quite hard. But it wasn't as if his wife didn't have access to him--often Rockwell would include his familly in his work. Also, they lived around other illustrators, so she would have had a lot of wives or other friends to socialize with. She might just have been a drama queen, or one of those women who bottle it all up and then fall to pieces. Or maybe not.

Again, I think there is a temptation to single out the artist with having this problem, when I am sure that other professions have this problem too. Anybody who loves their work is torn by this. It causes trouble.

But the pattern Kent shows is one of a skillful manipulator who hunted and used other people hard and often. People like him deserve a separate category. Maybe he shoud be labelled an "Artist in Perpetual Lust".

As far as Wyeth goes, I'm sure he suffers from a bit of "Kent Syndrome". But many examples abound of artists who were also great family men (Frank Frazetta, for one).

I know you posted on Kent and noted this peculiarity of his sociopathic personality. I just don't think he was romantic or loved much at all--maybe in the abstract, but not in the real world, where it counts.

colin said...

Or maybe the person he was in love with was himself?

I don't know that Kent is a particularly good example of an artist who sacrificed or neglected his life for Art. From what I read in the post he doesn't seem to have done much sacrificing, and I'm not all that impressed by his art either (just my opinion, of course).

I wonder... I think some artists do obsess over their art and neglect other parts of their lives, but I'm not actually sure that this makes them better artists. Could Rockwell has accomplished what he did without neglecting his wife? Maybe. We'll never know. Maybe he would have produced fewer works, but I'm not convinced that the difference between seven days a week and five is what made his work as great as it is.

I do know from first hand experience how working on art can make you forget everything else, which could easily turn into a kind of neglect. Maybe the legend of the artist sacrificing themselves to Art is partially due to this. Very pragmatic and unromantic, I suppose, but there you are.

David Apatoff said...

Brian, I think there is still a difference between the artist and other busy professionals. Perhaps it is just the sanctimony with which artists sometimes justify their trade offs. Perhaps it is the disparity between the beauty they create and the ugliness they tolerate in order to create it. William Faulkner wrote:"Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency... to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the Ode on a Grecian Urn is worth any number of old ladies." When Faulkner's daughter tried to insert herself between Faulkner and his work, he rebuffed her: "Nobody remembers Shakespeare's children."

I don't know many corporate executives who would rationalize their trade offs the samne way.

David Apatoff said...

Colin, you've put your finger on one of the toughest issues for me. It's one thing to spend every waking moment painting and to mistreat the people around you if you are Picasso. But what if your art turns out to be no good? It takes a lot of arrogance to subordinate the welfare of others to your art. What if it doesn't make you a better artist?

Anonymous said...

I would like to point out one additional issue. These bad examples (I previously posted about McClellan Barkley as an egregiously bad case in this regard) were the equivalent in their day of media superstars. More than a few cashed in on their fame to exploit others (and not just women), and many were self-centered in the same way today's stars are. I've read that Kent was a chore to work with professionally, so he sounds like a talented all-around jerk.

Anonymous said...

If you want to read an excellent fictional account of a selfish artist you should read The Moon and Six Pence by Somerset Maugham. The book is loosely based on the life of Paul Gauguin, another artist with interesting personality quirks.

One thing to always remember about Picasso is that the people who got involved with him did know or should have known what they were getting into.

David Apatoff said...

I agree, anonymous, that people had fair warning about Picasso (and about Kent, and about a number of other rats) but that warning doesn't seem to make any difference at all.

I am waiting for someone to give me an example of a woman artist who mistreated a long line of men.

lotusgreen said...

i've been wondering some similar things, david. it seems the more one reads of the personal lives of artists (and i include the broadest panoply here), almost inevitably seem to contain madness, depression, whathaveyou.

but then i wonder, does it simply seem this way because you don't sit around reading nonfiction life stories of morticians, insurance salesmen, or dentists. would the percentage be the same? is this humanity's dirty little secret, that we all end up fallen off the deep end?

or it is the artist alone, and that would mean that it is irretrievably part of the experience of artist.

because i think that some of the comments made thusfar on kent, for example, assume that that choice could be made. could gauguin have stayed home with his wife and kids? could hemingway have called suicide prevention instead? could ruskin have changed his mind and start writing about the bauhaus?

can you even stop biting your fingernails?

it's like women who are abused by their mates, why don't they leave? can they?

theory_of_me said...

Colin - All love is self-love when you get right down to it.

Art has more value than the wife and kids. It doesn't take brains or talent to screw and make lots of babies.

colin said...

Hi theory_of_me,

Maybe art has more value than "screwing and making babies", or, at least, some of it does. Of course, some of it doesn't. A lot of it doesn't. One thing's for sure: Without the screwing, and all the cleaning up diapers and paying for art degrees that comes after, we wouldn't have any artists at all, great or otherwise.

I question whether Kent's dedication to art interfered at all with his "screwing", and I question whether whatever sacrifices he may have made (or sacrifices he may have made of other people) helped him produce great art. I question whether there is any real connection between abuse of one's self or others, and greatness in art. Similarly, I question any other "artist" who may feel his or her art is an excuse to be a poor human being. That's all.

David Apatoff said...

Theory_of_me, my advice to anyone who even thinks about beginning a sentence with the words, "All love is..." should quickly delete them before Love sees them and comes along and kicks your ass for being so presumptuous. Then go read Yeats' poem, "Brown Penny":

O love is the crooked thing,
There is nobody wise enough
To find out all that is in it,
For he would be thinking of love

Till the stars had run away
And the shadows eaten the moon.
Ah, penny, brown penny, brown penny,
One cannot begin it too soon.

Smart man, that Yeats.

David Apatoff said...

Colin, there is a lot of broken crockery around the creation of art, and I'm sure it is not all essential to the creation of great art. Just because an artist is an alcoholic, it doesn't mean they are sedating the pain of their sensitivity. And sure, artists may not screw around just because they are more passionate by nature. But the issue that plagues me, and the reason I wrote this entry about Kent, is that all time spent at the drawing board or easel is time spent away from one's spouse and children. You do what you have to do to earn a living, but every hour beyond that, when you work just to become great, you are making a decision to sacrifice relationships and family for Art. Kent may just be a psychopathic extreme.

colin said...

Hi David, yes, I do know what you're talking about. I agree with the others above who point out that's not really an issue with art. It's an issue with greatness, or striving to be great in one thing at the exclusion of all else.

I suppose it comes down to a personal decision eventually, about whether greatness, by whatever measure (Fame? Citations? Gold medals? Self-satisfaction?) is worth giving up other things. It's a personal decision what you choose to value highly, and what you choose to neglect in pursuit of your goals. On the other hand, it may not be a conscious decision, or one that can easily be changed. Something to think about, for sure.

(Still not sure that Kent is such a good example of this, but I'll put that question aside.)

theory_of_me said...

david apatoff - I guess if Yeats said it then it must be true. Some examples of when love is not in the least bit selfish would have been preferable to that rather bad poem.

colin - Babies practically grow on trees. Great art is extremely rare. I don't value what can be done by accident in a back alley while drunk as much as something that requires at least average intelligence.

I agree with you on one point. If someone enjoys creating art more than raising a family than that's his preference. One really can't help what he likes and dislikes. But calling someone a "poor human being" because he neglects his family is rather presumptuous. It implies that there's a universal and correct standard of what a good human being is.

brian - "In the end, I like his work. But its not as if the world couldn't go on without it."

I could say the same thing about anyone in my family, all my ex-girlfriends, and myself.

colin said...

Sorry to keep reiterating and trying to clarify. It's one of my failings.

"But calling someone a 'poor human being' because he neglects his family is rather presumptuous."

You misunderstand me, but I suppose I wasn't very clear. One point is that, obviously, I can only apply my own standards (and trying not to be judgmental is one of those-- I leave it up to you to judge whether I'm keeping up my standard). I don't mean to imply I have an inside track on some sort of universal moral code.

The second point is that, really, it's about what the artist (or accountant, or whatever) feels about it themselves. If they find themselves saying something like, "I'm doing this for my art," to excuse themselves for something they, themselves, feel requires an excuse, then maybe they should step back for a moment. (Easy to say, of course.)

A person who chooses not to have a wife or family in order to dedicate themselves to art is, it seems to me, admirable. Someone who doesn't bother to think about it and just lets things slide into disarray, not so much.

David Apatoff said...

Hey theory_of_me, ask your girlfriend to write in. We would all like to talk with her!

theory_of_me said...

david apatoff - I don't date anymore. Women shouldn't be used for cheap pleasure.

colin - What's the best a parent can do? The kids should be fed until they have the ability to feed themselves and encouraged to be assertive, compassionate, and above all, independent individuals.

Even if you do all this, there is no guarantee that you'll end up with a strong and admirable human being.

As for the poor wife, what can you do? From the outset the story goes that she would be less than whole without her dear husband. This is cruel yet the vast majority of people voluntarily submit to this sort of nonsense every day.

Can great art be created without this delusion? I don't see why not. Art at its greatest should point to some higher truth, even if it is itself associated with many false things.

Marriage is a construction of society. It has some practical benefits but ultimately becomes a ball and chain if the spirit yearns to be free.

So why do artists fall in love? Hopefully so they can see the error of their ways.

"The fool who persists in his folly will become wise." - William Blake

chris miller said...

I saw the Rockwell Kent show at the Terra Museum (before Ms. Terra closed it down) -- and I fell for him big time.

I'd always liked his illustrations in Moby Dick -- but this show gave me so much more to love: color !

It's hard, now, to imagine how Communism became so trendy in the artworld of the early 20th Century.

Unknown said...

whenever there's a story about an artist who was a fucking asshole, people totally get off on getting on their high horses. they feel like they're doing some great service, "bringing us all back down to earth" to see that artists are just people and should be judged as such. WOW. what a glimmering strand of wisdom you've plucked from the great elephant of lies we ride. people are more important - thank you for the platitudes.

the truth is, some pieces of shit are lovable. if you don't get why, then please, move on with your life. put your armchair psychology somewhere it'll do some good. up your ass.

PLEASE excuse my language. I LOVE THIS SERIES. i wouldn't be surprised if this comment were moderated. but i found myself getting really pissed off and figured, hey, maybe some love for the assholes!

Unknown said...

haha woops. I had no idea that these comments were from five years ago. sigh. rage + internet always ='s making a fool out of myself.