The Kent Postcards
I had been in and out of Dean Ted Hail’s office many times in the years I’d worked in the Academic Deanery at Brown University, but never paid particular attention to the large painting on his wall. But one day in 1982 it caught my eye and I realized it was a landscape of a view I had recently come to know well: the view from the cliffs on the "other side" of Monhegan Island - the side that looks out across the Atlantic Ocean. The signature of the artist confirmed it: Rockwell Kent, I knew, had been a frequent resident of the island over the years. The date, 1905, corresponded with his early stay there; he would have been in his twenties when he painted it.
Dean Hail said he’d retrieved the painting from the basement of University Hall after another dean had moved away and abandoned it. Every now and then, in the next few years, I went into Ted’s office and looked at the view of BlackHead and wished it were summertime and I were on Monhegan again.
When Ted retired, no one in the office wanted to inherit that painting the way that I did. No matter that it was very dingy and dark; no matter that it was obviously a work of a young, unformed artist. And no matter that it was a LARGE painting, much TOO large for my small office from which I administered the computer network in University Hall. That painting showed the precise view that, every summer, I made a pilgrimage to see upon first returning to the Island, and I wanted it near me.
The Monhegan Museum, a small entity with a collection of paintings and memorabilia, is housed in the home of the lighthouse keeper atop the hill overlooking the Monhegan harbor. I mentioned the painting to its president, who said, ‘wouldn’t it be great if Brown would lend the painting to us, to show here!’ Over the next couple of years, at the time Vartan Gregorian was becoming president, I pursued the possibility of having the painting travel up to the Island. Finally the Trustees agreed to loan the painting to the Monhegan museum.
Before the painting could go to Maine, it had to be appraised, so that it could be covered by insurance while on loan. I arranged to take it up to the Open Appraisal day at a gallery in Boston. My husband built a sort of open tray for it to ride in. I expected the appraiser to give an estimate of its worth as perhaps $5000. No. Fifty thousand, cash on the barrel-head if I could deal right then. Of course I couldn’t, and Brown did not want to sell the painting, but I had quite a nervous ride back to Rhode Island with it in the rear of the station wagon as I negotiated rush-hour Boston traffic! That summer, 1993, and the following one, the painting was on display at the Monhegan Museum.
At the end of the second summer I got a call from Jessica Nicholl, who was arranging an exhibition at the Portland (Maine) Museum of Art, had seen the painting on Monhegan, and wanted to use it in her show, which focused on the artist Robert Henri and his followers. Kent had been one, as had George Bellows, John Marin, and others of the early 20th Century New York scene. The Portland Museum would pay for the cleaning and restoration of the painting if it could be shown there for six months, in 1994. Brown agreed to allow the painting to go to Portland, so once again the painting and I set off, this time to the restorers in New London, Connecticut, and from there to Portland.
Meanwhile, Rob Emlen had been appointed University Curator. Given that I had unearthed one unsuspected "treasure," and another, a giant chandelier, had strayed to the Providence Public Library, the Trustees must have figured that there might be others around the University and that having Rob searching them out and recording Brown’s assets would be useful. Rob gave a talk at Staff Development day, which I attended, telling of missing materials, such as a mate to the impressive tapestry that hung in the Corporation Room in University Hall.
In that summer of ‘94, long-delayed rewiring of University Hall was done. The door to the attic was open, and I went up to look around, hoping I’d see the tapestry tucked in some dark corner. I found no tapestry, but saw two paintings, covered in heavy layers of dust, and hauled them down to the second floor Deanery. One was a print, behind glass. The other had a frame that looked suspiciously like the one I knew so well from the Kent painting. I started carefully cleaning away the dust covering it. As I cleaned I realized that this was ANOTHER KENT! No matter that it had no signature on it. By then I knew Monhegan well, and I knew the house shown in the painting, and the blue water beyond it. I called Rob. He came over and agreed that it must be a Kent, but in a style quite different from the previous one. Where careful brushstrokes had made a simple landscape in the first one, here there were people on a path, and wash hung out to dry in ocean breezes, and the style was much more impressionistic. We took color pictures of it and hung it up, for the moment, on the wall over my desk where the previous Kent had been.
I went up to Portland, and at the Henri exhibit, where I went to see the first Kent, showed the photo of the painting and of the strange tag on its back to Jessica Nicholl. She was excited. The tag indicated that the painting had been exhibited at the Beaux Arts show in 1907 - which had been organized by Kent. In the catalog of the show, we later found out, was a painting called Blue Monday; there is another painting of the same spot, with that name, made a few years later by Kent so it seems likely that is also what he had called this one.
In the fall, at a reception at the President’s house for the new Provost and the Dean of the College, Clare Gregorian told me she was thinking of putting the original painting in her dining room. I said, I would guess you’d prefer THIS one, and I showed her a color xerox of the Blue Monday painting. Aha, she said, Rob didn’t mention THAT one! Next thing we knew, she was having it cleaned and installed in her dining room.
Rockwell Kent was very popular as a book illustrator in the twenties and thirties; he illustrated the big Chaucer volume and the one-volume Shakespeare that many of us grew up with, as well as American Heritage editions of Moby Dick, Candide, and other classics. At some point he became a Communist, and because of that, when he offered paintings to the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, Maine, they were refused. Furious, he made a gift of these paintings, many of which were of Monhegan, to the Soviet Union. Legend among Monheganers tells that these paintings are hanging in the Hermitage, and I’m sure some are, but most of them were dispersed to museums all over the Soviet Republics - the Blue Monday mentioned before is actually in Armenia!
In any event, there has been recent renewed interest in Kent, and in his paintings as well as his graphic-art works. A young man who’s doing a ‘catalog raisonne’ of Kent works came to town and Rob Emlen and I accompanied him to see the ‘original’ Kent, now hanging in the Provost’s Office, and also over to see the THIRD Kent, in the ladies’ lounge in the Physics Department, installed there at the time of the opening of Barus and Holley. This Kent, Winter Sea, was the latest of the three to be painted, and the brushstrokes of this third large oil are much more free and stylized than those of the previous two. Clare Gregorian must have been as enchanted by this one as we were, because she also funded its cleaning and installation across her dining room from Blue Monday.
Clare Gregorian left Brown to return to New York City; I retired from Brown about the same time. But I’m sure that she, like I, is happy that the Kent paintings, now worth much more than they were a few years ago, will grace Brown for some time to come.
And I was given permission to have postcards made of them, to sell on and around Monhegan to those who love the Island as much as Kent did.