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From the Print Journal

“And words were images to him”: Narrative Remediation in Rockwell Kent

© 2022 Johns Hopkins University Press

In early 1912, when Walt Kuhn, Walter Pach, and Arthur Davies convened to begin planning the International Exhibit of Modern Art, they decided that the show would need to include the most important artists working in the contemporary avant-garde. The 1913 Armory Show, as the exhibit came to be called, effectively brought experimental European art to the United States; for the first time in a major exhibit, artists like Matisse, Picasso, and Duchamp were brought together for American audiences. While the show wasn’t received gracefully—many viewers and critics denounced the work on display as scandalous, unseemly, or simply bad—its impact was profound.[1] This was in part because, as Milton Brown has written, “The American art world was not ready for the armory show. . . . The public had not had a generation to get used to the older revolution which might have prepared it for the new; it got everything at once and it is no wonder that the total was unimaginable.”[2] The New York Times held that “no one within reach of it can afford to ignore it,” and the Boston Globe announced that “American art will never be the same again” (Brown, Armory Show, 87, 88). The exhibit launched the careers of the brothers Jacques Villon and Marcel Duchamp; the latter’s Nude descending a staircase no. 2 was among the most provocative works in the exhibit and “served as the favorite butt of the joke-masters” (Brown, “Retrospect,” 37).[3] To be included in the Armory Show was to be claimed as a certified member of the contemporary avant-garde, to have your work validated as among the most important work being produced in the period. Being excluded from the show, by contrast, could be damning.

The American artist Rockwell Kent was among those excluded, and he felt the slight sharply. In his autobiography It’s Me O Lord, Kent tellingly denounces the show, proclaiming that its effects were deleterious: “the sensational Armory show of 1913 that brought ‘Cubism’ to America,” Kent writes sarcastically, “lured [Arthur] Davies with many another good painter of too fragile a humanity and unstable mind into the sterile, dead-end byways of abstractionism.”[4] But the ostensible disinterest in the Armory Show Kent projects is misleading and reveals the complicated emotions he felt in realizing that he was, in the eyes of his peers, out of sync with the aesthetic movements of the period. Just a few years earlier, both Kent and Davies had been included in the Exhibition of Independent Artists, co-organized by Kent’s teacher Robert Henri and, not incidentally, Walt Kuhn.[5] That exhibition, in 1910, had been fundamental in defying the stodgily conservative National Academy of Art and Design and defining the American avant-garde.[6] The following year, Davies helped Kent organize the Independent Exhibition of the Painting and Drawings of Twelve Men, which included work by Kent, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Alfred Maurer, George Luks, and Maurice Prendergast, the latter two being secured by Davies. Kent must have felt personally rejected when, in 1912, Davies didn’t think to invite him to the Armory Show, and his characterization of Davies as “fragile” and “unstable” is due, no doubt, to the personal animus spurred by his exclusion.[7] The Kent of 1910 and 1911 thought of himself as among the vanguard of modern art; by 1913, he realized he was being relegated to the domain of the traditional.

Kent’s exclusion from the show would augur the trajectory of his career, as he would often struggle to have his work appreciated outside or beyond popular, commercial venues. While he was, in 1913, still a relatively minor artist unable to get his work into the important galleries, he would become in subsequent decades among the most recognizable artists of his time. Significantly, however, he was most well-known not for his impressive collection of paintings but rather for his book illustrations, especially his ambitious, and massively successful, 1930 edition of Moby-Dick.[8] This must have frustrated Kent, for he turned to illustration largely out of economic necessity, and preferred painting to book work.[9] Stubbornly resourceful and invariably pragmatic, however, Kent adapted quickly to the role he carved for himself as America’s leading book illustrator, and in the twenty-one years between 1928 and 1949, he illustrated Voltaire’s Candide (1928), The Canterbury Tales of Geoffrey Chaucer (1930), Beowulf (1932), The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (1936), Goethe’s Faust (1941), Paul Bunyan (1941), Leaves of Grass (1947), and The Decameron of Giovanni Boccaccio (1949), to name just a few. Moreover, Kent also authored four popular travel narratives: Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska (1920), Voyaging: Southward from the Strait of Magellan (1924), N by E (1930), and Salamina (1935), which showcase his pen-and-ink, crayon, and woodblock print images (all have been reissued by Wesleyan University Press).[10] It’s important to recognize that book illustration was not, at least initially, how Kent envisioned his artistic career, even if it did bring him relative financial and commercial success. If he eventually made a name (and a living) for himself through his work with books, it came at the expense of his standing among his avant-garde contemporaries.

But it would be unfair and, worse, inaccurate to denounce Kent’s aesthetic as staid and conservative, or to interpret his work in book illustration as capitulating to the demands of the capitalist market economy. Kent’s absence from the Armory Show is not evidence of his artistic irrelevance; on the contrary, as I hope to demonstrate, it is only when we understand Kent’s seeming exclusion from the avant-garde that we can appreciate the full complexity of his work. Kent was deeply conscious of the extent to which he was out of sync with his own historical and aesthetic moment, yet despite his protestations against many of the stylistic developments of modernism, a careful reading of his paintings, illustrations, and woodcuts reveals his comfortable affinity with the movements of his period: his meticulously rendered chiaroscuro pen-and-ink drawings invoke the broken, irregular perspectives of German Expressionism; the crisp lines of his illustrations in Candide and Venus and Adonis (1931) share the fluid draftsmanship and mannerist poses of Matisse’s etchings for Ulysses (1935) or lithographs for Pasiphae (1944); many of the figures he drew for A Basket of Poses, the book of verses written by George Chappell in 1924 (which Kent signed “Hogarth, Jr.”), are distorted by a matrix of curved lines and impossible angles that might have been taken from Cubism. Kent’s style is at once suggestive of nineteenth-century illustration even as it retains its distinctively modern disposition. His oeuvre works both deliberately against and, simultaneously, in active conversation with the avant-garde.[11]

A similar sense of displacement colors his affiliation with the histories of illustration and pictorial narrative, traditions that he engages from a distance. On the one hand, we might read him as extending the rich history of nineteenth-century book illustration, noting in particular his debt to William Blake and stylistic echo of the work of George Cruikshank, Hablot Knight Browne, and John Tenniel. On the other, Kent can also be situated in the decidedly twentieth-century tradition of pictorial narrative that includes the work of Otto Nückel, Frans Masereel, and Lynd Ward (the last of whom shared a correspondence with and was directly inspired by Kent). Importantly, though, positioning him alongside these histories makes evident the extent to which he doesn’t fit neatly in either of them. Kent draws on the tropes of book illustration even while he subtly subverts them, as the distinctive style in both his work on Moby-Dick and his travel narratives—difficult, anachronistic, dated—complicates his historical and aesthetic position in that tradition. His illustrations thematize the problem of perception, for rather than illuminating his prose, they often reproduce a highly stylized and overly mediated vision of the text. Moreover, Kent never produced a straightforward pictorial narrative. His work exhibits a peculiar resistance to sequential progression, and while he was interested in the narrative potential of images, he never subjected his visual art to the kind of ordered sequences we find in Masereel or Ward. Instead, Kent probes the idea of pictorial narrative from afar, exploring the intricate set of relations between word, image, and narrative to forge an aesthetic project that moves in uncommon ways between media. To understand Kent’s work, we need to position him in the liminal space between book illustration and the history of pictorial narrative. It’s only when we see the ways in which he doesn’t fit neatly in either of those traditions that we can come to understand how he’s bringing them together.

Narratively playful, linguistically provocative, and aesthetically experimental, Kent’s work should be read as trying to make sense of his uncertain place in the history of art, illustration, and literature. In moving between conventional forms of book illustration and the resurgence of pictorial narrative, Kent makes visible what I call narrative remediation, an aesthetic practice that attends to the temporal interruptions, dislocations, and revisions inherent to moving between media. Remediation—which Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin define as “the representation of one medium in another”—is necessarily a temporal and nonlinear process, as “new media refashion prior media forms” and, sometimes, old media remediate new.[12] “And words were images to him,” Kent writes of the Danish mate who taught him how to navigate at sea, though this idea might also describe Kent’s own atypical aesthetic practice. Remediation for Kent is not simply the process of turning prose into images, but rather of transitioning fluidly between unique visual and verbal narrative forms.[13] In Kent’s work, illustration becomes a narratively dynamic hermeneutics: adapting prose into image is a process of interpretation that relies on temporal disjunctions between the moment of reading a particular scene, finishing the narrative as a whole, and going back to select certain scenes to illustrate. Images thus engage the prose they accompany from an uncertain narrative remove, as they are sometimes informed by later developments in the story and at other times proleptically anticipate those future events. Kent’s efforts to translate aspects of his narratives into different media—while formally acknowledging the inevitable temporal displacement that obtains in any hybrid visual/verbal text—is an act of narrative remediation that has consequences for how we understand both his work in book illustration and his relation to his own historical moment. As I argue below, Kent’s approaches to book illustration are informed by his experiments with pictorial narrative and his ideas about pictorial narrative remain deeply influenced by his work in book illustration.

“Illustrated by Rockwell Kent”: Book Illustration in the Twentieth Century

In September of 1926, William A. Kittredge, the Director of Design and Typography for Lakeside Press, approached Kent about an illustration project. Lakeside, an imprint of the Chicago-based R. R. Donnelley & Sons Company, had just launched its Four American Books campaign, a publication project meant to showcase the press’s mechanical and technical skill as a publisher of fine illustrated editions. Kittredge wrote to Kent, who was already well-known for other illustration projects and for his travel narratives, and offered him $1,000 to illustrate Richard Henry Dana’s 1840 novel Two Years Before the Mast. Kent liked the proposal, and needed the money, but he had a better idea. He offered to illustrate Moby-Dick.[14]

After receiving a sampling of Kent’s illustrations, and before the book was published in 1930, Kittredge was overwhelmed with enthusiasm: “We will all go jump in the lake if this book is not the greatest illustrated book ever done in America.”[15] Kittredge wouldn’t be disappointed. By all accounts—commercial, economic, aesthetic—the Rockwell Kent Moby-Dick project was an enormous success.[16] From a marketing standpoint, the artistry on display in the printing and binding of the book attracted the attention of publishers looking for a printer and helped to initiate R. R. Donnelley’s rise through the next several decades.[17] Lakeside was inundated with orders for the three-volume Moby-Dick, even at $52—over $900 in 2022. In fact, the press took so many orders for the book they worried the planned 1,000 copies wouldn’t be enough; Kittredge proposed to Donnelley Vice President C. G. Littell that they increase production to 2,500 copies. (Littell rejected the idea, and the company eventually settled on releasing a trade edition through Random House; Lakeside would handle the printing.) The economic success was connected to the aesthetic merit of the work, which Kittredge observed almost immediately. Kent’s earnings eventually ballooned to $6,000, just one of the many signs of Kittredge’s enthusiasm for Kent’s work.[18]

Random House’s trade edition, which was published in 1931 and included 270 of the 280 images, became a Book-of-the-Month club selection, which vastly increased the number of readers exposed to both Melville’s text and Kent’s illustrations; many of those readers were coming to the book familiar with Rockwell Kent, but less so with Melville. In his 1947 dramatic poem The Masque of Mercy, Robert Frost playfully satirizes the extent of Kent’s influence on the mythos of the novel in an exchange between a customer and a bookseller. The customer asks about a whaling story and the bookseller replies, “Oh, you mean Moby Dick / By Rockwell Kent, that everybody’s reading.”[19] The bookseller might be forgiven his blunder: the dust jacket of the Random House edition reads, in large letters that take up nearly half the cover, MOBY DICK, and just below the title, ILLUSTRATED BY ROCKWELL KENT—nowhere does the jacket mention that the book was written by Herman Melville (figs. 1 and 2). Though it is difficult today to imagine a reading public more familiar with Rockwell Kent than with Herman Melville, Constance Martin reminds us that “Melville’s death in 1891 had passed almost unnoticed. It might be said, without too much exaggeration, that Rockwell Kent had brought him back to life.” (Martin, Odyssey, 35).

Book cover with title
Fig. 1. Cover of Random House Moby-Dick, 1930.
Cover of Random House Moby-Dick on book standing up
Fig. 2. Cover of Random House Moby-Dick, 1930.

Part of the appeal of Kent’s work remains his distinctive, heavily stylized chiaroscuro. In his famous image of Ahab, which appears in chapter XLVI (“Surmises”), the captain gazes stoically over the edge of the Pequod, lost in contemplation of the hauntingly elusive white whale (a thought represented visually in the white cloud in the background, which looks, teasingly, very like a whale, or the tale of a whale; fig. 3). The image balances the play of order and chaos, obsession and insanity that motivates the novel. The regularity of Kent’s rigid, carefully hatched lines are frequently interrupted by angles that jut unevenly across the composition, such as the uppermost cloud, which descends from the right-hand corner down to the left-hand side of the frame. The upper edge of the Pequod, meanwhile, emerges out of the same vanishing point as the cloud, collapsing foreground and background. Broken scalene triangles proliferate, continually dislocating the focal point: the black sea in the background forms an elongated right triangle that is precariously and unevenly counterbalanced by the larger right triangle that is the deck of the ship; the outer edge of the triangular shadow on the left of the image nearly intersects with the support beam of the bulkhead, forming a smaller obtuse triangle in negative space; and most prominently, the triangular figure of Ahab himself, not quite centered, commands our attention. (Within the larger triangle that extends from Ahab’s hat down to his right foot and across to his wooden left leg, there are a number of smaller triangles that constitute his body, such as the penetrating shadow between his legs, the open flap of his jacket, and the imaginary points connecting his right shoulder, elbow, and pocketed hand; his nose, eyes, and even his chin form triangles making up his face.) Ahab himself is divided; the entire left side of his body disappears in shadow, symbolically mirroring his missing left leg, and his face appears only in profile. These unbalanced visual details provide a formal parallel to the thematic topoi of instability, uncertainty, and monomania that preoccupy the novel and its characters.

Line drawing of man with pegleg
Fig. 3. “Illustrations” by Rockwell Kent, copyright (c) 1930 by Penguin Random House LLC; from MOBY DICK: OR THE WHALE by Herman Melville. Used by permission of Modern Library, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

Kent himself remained deeply aware that his art was stylistically apposite to the emotional, intellectual, and aesthetic disposition of Melville’s novel. While working on his illustrations, he wrote to Kittredge that “night, the midnight darkness enveloping human existence, the darkness of the human soul, the abyss, such is the mood of Moby Dick” (quoted in Abrams, “Illuminated Critique,” 381). Maintaining this mood became Kent’s primary aesthetic aim; as Matthew Jeffrey Abrams has pointed out, Kent required Donnelley & Sons to use “an antiquated and labor-intensive process called ‘photomechanical etchdowns’, which preserved the tonal purity and deep black color of classical techniques like woodblock printing” (376). And the relationship between the manner of reproduction and the aesthetic mood of a print was on the forefront of Kent’s mind: in his short book How I Make a Woodcut, published in 1934, Kent reflects that, for the artist, the “problem is not alone the re-creation of those natural elements” of a scene, but rather “the mood itself.”[20] This philosophy is evident in wood-engraved images produced as part of an advertising campaign for the American Car and Foundry Company in 1930, which invoke the rugged individualism of Walt Whitman or (Kent’s contemporary) Ernest Hemingway (some of the images were repurposed as illustrations for his book N by E that same year). The campaign was launched to advertise A. C. F.’s new line of luxury yachts; Kent understood that the purpose of the campaign was not to describe the boats visually but rather invite consumers to imagine the spirit of adventure that awaits them, if only they purchase one of these yachts.[21]

Placing these wood engravings alongside illustrations from Moby-Dick underscores Kent’s emphasis on emotional authenticity rather than pictorial realism. Two illustrations—Man at Mast, which appeared in N by E, and an illustration from chapter ninety-nine of Moby-Dick—are both heavily stylized without being abstract (figs. 4 and 5).[22] In figure 4, the moonlight lands dramatically on the human figure; the boat itself catches minimal light and dissolves into the background of the open ocean, softening the boundaries between nature and self. The man’s upturned face is distorted in the play of light and dark and appears proportionally too small, while his unrealistically elongated neck is hidden in shadow. The rigid division between light and dark lends the face the appearance of a dehumanizing mask, simultaneously disguising the figure’s emotional disposition and erasing any trace of his individuality. Though figure 5 presents a starkly different central character, Kent again uses the play of light and shadow to draw our eye into an absent center: the focus of the image is the massive whale, haunting the center of the composition even as it collapses into itself. The sperm whale’s open mouth is identifiable only by the white teeth of its lower jaw; the penetrating darkness of the rest of the figure draws viewers into the open mouth. The human shapes in the distance, meanwhile, are cartoonish in their lack of detail. Neither image tries to hide the meticulous hatching foundational to their manner of production; these images are art objects, masterfully polished and yet conspicuously produced by a human hand. In maintaining stylized traces of their production, both images carefully and deliberately reject pictorial realism.

Illustration of man by mast
Fig. 4. Man at Mast, illustration from N by E (1930).
Drawing of whale under boat
Fig. 5. “Illustrations” by Rockwell Kent, copyright (c) 1930 by Penguin Random House LLC; from MOBY DICK: OR THE WHALE by Herman Melville. Used by permission of Modern Library, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

Despite the shared aesthetic and stylistic quality of these two images, however, the images Kent produced for Lakeside’s Moby-Dick are not woodblock-print images—they only look like woodblock prints. In fact, Kent completed his illustrations using a combination of pen and ink, brush, and black crayon, sometimes combining media in a single composition to perform what we might think of as a kind of visual archaeology: manipulating the technologies of the present to unearth the aesthetics of the past.[23] As Jamie L. Jones has written, Kent’s Moby-Dick illustrations are “‘skeuomorphs,’ artifacts with design features that resemble the essential characteristics of another medium and an earlier technological process.”[24] Skeuomorphism emerges from a deep engagement with and longing for a history that cannot be recovered: “A skeuomorph represents a specifically nostalgic type of remediation, a process of transforming a work or image from one medium into another: it is a simulacrum that gestures specifically toward the past” (Jones, “Print Nostalgia,” 5). At a time when American literature was just beginning to attain cultural legitimacy, Kent’s skeuomorphic drawings, which look like they are from an era much earlier than his own, helped make “Moby-Dick look like the classic it had become” (7). The visual style of Kent’s Moby-Dick illustrations attest to his acute understanding of and appreciation for the history of print technology; his images gesture deliberately to an outdated mode of print-making, even as he employed (and enjoyed) modern methods of photographic reproduction.

In demonstrating his acute understanding of the history of print technology, Kent’s Moby-Dick illustrations help to situate him as emerging out of—and transforming—the tradition of book illustration. Throughout the nineteenth century, developments in print technology made images cheaper and easier to reproduce, fueling a burgeoning market of illustrated newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, posters, and books.[25] Master engravers trained apprentices in the art of wood engraving, preparing woodblocks to print images created originally in pen and ink.[26] Publishers released editions of literary classics alongside newly written books with illustrations in a wide variety of visually diverse styles, from John Martin’s near-photorealistic mezzotint engravings for Paradise Lost, to the crowded, cartoonish images by both George Cruikshank and Hablot Knight Browne that illuminated Dickens’s novels, to the enduringly charming characters realized in John Tenniel’s illustrations for Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. Popular demand and commercial availability, however, were not indicative of aesthetic value, and as the nineteenth century came to a close, so too did the industry of apprentices and masters responsible for producing illustrations. Engraving workshops were dissolved as photography became the primary mode of pictorial reproduction, and illustrated books increasingly had to contend with other visually charged media, such as photojournalism and film.

The early years of the twentieth century saw a marked shift—technological, aesthetic, and philosophical—in the publication of illustrated books. The heavily stylized designs of William Morris’s Kelmscott Press Chaucer and Aubrey Beardsley’s Japanese-inspired figures for Oscar Wilde’s Salome helped to inaugurate a tradition of fine printing carried on in George Macy’s Limited Editions Club (which published Matisse’s illustrated edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1935) and the Lakeside Press.[27] In contrast to the booming industry of nineteenth-century book illustration, which privileged efficiency, economy, and output, twentieth-century fine publishing valued handmade paper, imported inks, and elaborate printing methods (usually a combination of older letterpress modes and sophisticated new technologies such as photogravure, the intaglio process used by Alfred Stieglitz to reproduce photographs for Camera Work). Publishers contracted artists renowned for their work in the fine arts, from Picasso to Vasily Kandinsky to Salvador Dalí, to complete illustration projects.[28]

Yet despite this careful attention to craft and aestheticism, we should be cautious about assuming that twentieth-century fine printing positioned itself against the demands of the commercial market. Donnelley’s Four American Books Campaign produced books so finely made that they remain impressive today, but the campaign was first and foremost a marketing stunt, an effort to situate U. S. printers against or alongside their European counterparts. Claire Badaracco has called the project “an assertion of American competitiveness in printing, papermaking, bookbinding, and illustrated books,” and suggests that “The Four Books were intended to reposition Donnelley as a printer and to advertise abroad the ability of modern American printing technology to meet the most demanding European standards” (Badaracco, American Culture, 26–28).

“A demon figure against the flames”: Illustration and the Problem of Perception

Just as Rockwell Kent doesn’t fit neatly in the history of early twentieth-century art, neither does he settle comfortably into his identity as a book illustrator. Kent occupies a self-consciously contradictory position in the history of illustration I’ve just sketched: his visual style evokes the industrial efficiency of nineteenth-century woodblock prints, even as he participates in the tradition of fine printing.[29] This historical and stylistic displacement is part of his refusal to abide by the conventions of illustration, which has traditionally focused on visualizing a text. As J. Hillis Miller has written, the word illustration “means bringing to light, as a spelunker lights up a cave, or as a medieval manuscript is illuminated.”[30] The midcentury critic Edward Hodnett has suggested that only certain portions of a prose text deserve to be illustrated, and imagines a scenario wherein the illustrator makes interpretive decisions about the text that don’t accord with what the reader anticipates. Hodnett declaims, “a reader has the right to feel short-changed if Slade [the illustrator of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus] uses Marlowe’s masterpiece as a showcase for his own talents or whims—if, for instance, he decides, or agrees, to illustrate the famous lines ‘Was this the face that launched a thousand ships And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?’, and then leaves Helen out because he is good at drawing ships and adores fires.”[31] Critiques of illustration often begin with the assumption that illustration corrodes the otherwise pure literary image. “I am in favor of—no illustration,” writes Mallarmé, “since everything that a book evokes should take place in the reader’s mind.”[32] Similar criticisms, for example in Henry James’s famous preface to the New York Edition of The Golden Bowl and to a lesser extent in Miller’s Illustration, see visual images as illiterate or bastardized or simply mute versions of literary images.[33] For Kent, who wanted to carve a space for book illustration as a serious artform, word and image engage in a complex narrative exchange: they complement, inform, encourage, and even contradict one another.

Whether illustrating literary classics or his own travel narratives, Kent’s images frequently subvert any definition of illustration that seeks a straightforward correspondence between literary and visual image. Early in Moby-Dick, Ishmael walks into The Spouter-Inn and notices “a very large oil-painting so thoroughly besmoked” that Ishmael spends nearly two pages studying it.[34] But Kent resists the temptation to picture this picture, and instead draws Ishmael entering the inn. His drawing suggests a photograph taken just too late: Ishmael is only half visible, as his body disappears into the entrance. In a similar, suggestive scene early in Voyaging, Kent and his mate Ole Ytterock meet a German, Mulach, who is burning brush to cultivate the landscape:

One day at evening twilight he kindled a great accumulation of rubbish that lay on the border of the forest near the farmyard clearing. A strong wind was blowing; within ten minutes a full acre was ablaze. The fire leapt the tallest growing trees, and these flamed to the sky like burning oil tanks. The whole region of the ancient forest encumbered with fallen trunks and inflammable brush, and dry bogs and meadows of long grass, lay in the fire’s path as fuel for its flames; the stock, the sheep, the bridge, the pasture fences, everything above the ground to no one knew what limits to the east was threatened with destruction. The sense of imminent disaster, the furnace heat, the roaring of the flames and their lurid glare in the oncoming darkness, struck terror in us. The German rushed about in wild excitement, a demon figure against the flames.[35]

The verbal imagery is indelible: flames soar above the highest trees, their light rising into the darkness of the setting sun, while Mulach, “a demon figure against the flames,” asserts himself as part of the wild fury of the blaze. Mulach shouts, over the roar of the fire, “‘It’s going, isn’t it? The whole damned thing!’” Kent, Ytterock, and Mulach are helpless to quell the rage and resigned merely to observe the awesome destruction of the flames, which “[throw] their lurid light far down the gloomy aisles” of the surrounding forest. Mulach pragmatically “began, with sentiment that is only German, gathering sprays of the orange-flowered califata bush for a bouquet—‘before they burn,’ he said.” Despite the roaring flames and imminent destruction, Kent, Ole, and Mulach “went to supper and ate with almost unconcern”—“nothing to be done,” Mulach reckons—before the flames eventually and miraculously die out due to the dampness of the forest (Kent, Voyaging, 65–66).

Incredibly and almost frustratingly, however, the two pen-and-ink drawings that accompany the scene have nothing to do with the visually rich and dramatically evocative description of the fire. Kent’s signature pen-and-ink style, which captures forcefully the play of light and dark, is aptly suited to represent the flames, and Kent’s regular use of contrast throughout the book leads us to anticipate a drawing of Mulach’s frantic gestures cast against the fierce dancing light of the flames. Instead, Kent provides two images that are hardly mentioned in the text: the first depicts a mountain at the foot of Lake Fognano and the second shows Lake Fognano itself (figs. 6 and 7). Both images are entirely devoid of action and become dramatic, or undramatic, foil to the events described. Mountain at Foot of Fognano offers a dizzying maze of hatched, cross-hatched, and curvilinear lines. The image is difficult to look at in its complexity, as the harshly-rendered ink obscures any sense of the texture of the mountain. Which lines represent the jagged edges of rocks, and which merely shadows or shading? Does moss grow on some of the rocks? Does brush or foliage sprout from sparse collections of soil? Even our sense of scale is distorted: how far is the viewer from the mountain, and how large is it? Are we relatively close to a relatively small mountain, or are we far away from an extremely large mountain (and if the latter, do the small vertical lines bunched into regular rows represent groups of trees)? In Lake Fognano Kent draws a tranquil-seeming lake, mountains lingering sublimely in the background, but the view is blocked by tree branches, the darkness of the ink contrasting harshly with the image in the background. The branches bisect the image at uneven angles, disrupting any sort of formal unity that might otherwise emerge from the composition and leaving viewers with the uneasy feeling that we can’t quite see what we’re supposed to see. Studied closely, the branches start to look like streets: a twisted, curving road at the top, an intersection in the bottom-right—slick black tar overlaid atop the pastoral landscape in the background. The image almost fractures in two, with a bird’s-eye view of paved roads veneered over the lake and mountains.[36]

Illustration of mountain on page
Fig. 6. Mountain at Foot of Fognano, illustration from Voyaging (1924).
Illustration of lake on page
Fig. 7. Lake Fognano, illustration from Voyaging (1924).

Rather than allowing readers to see what he has described in prose, these images thematize the problem of perception: we can’t quite make out the texture of the mountain; our view is blocked by the unfortunate (and deliberate) placement of a looming tree branch. More than showing us what Kent sees, these images show us that we can’t see what he sees, and manipulate their own formal difficulty to demonstrate the disparity in visual experience between artist and viewer. Many of Kent’s pen-and-ink drawings exemplify what Bolter and Grusin would call “hypermediacy”: “[a] style of visual representation whose goal is to remind the viewer of the medium” (Bolter and Grusin, Remediation, 272). This is a common theme among Kent’s pen-and-ink images, which become meditations on the complexities of visual representation. They don’t illuminate his text, and they don’t reproduce for readers anything more than a highly stylized and hypermediated vision of a world many will never experience.

The visual obscurity of Kent’s pen and ink drawings becomes even more obvious when read against his paintings of similar scenes. This contrast is especially evident in his images of Sermilik fjord (which Kent spells “Sermalik”—“Greenlandish for glacier-bay,” he writes; Kent, N by E, 206). “Hereabouts I paint,” he tells us in N by E, “carrying my canvases over the hills or rowing to more distant places in my boat.” Like many of the images in Voyaging, the pen-and-ink drawings of Sermilik fjord celebrate their own stylized difficulty.[37] The image of the fjord at night codes initially like a printer’s error, spilt ink layered over itself, blurring the image buried underneath. But we soon realize that stylistic excess is itself the subject of this drawing: the fjord in the background is an afterthought, an excuse to experiment with the heavy, leaden tones of his ink (fig. 8). Kent’s paintings from this period, by contrast, brim with vibrant, colorful light (fig. 9). Artist in Greenland is an allegorized self-portrait, the artist alone except for the company of his bobsled dogs, creating the very image at which we now look. This particular scene—the landscape, the sunset—reveal Kent’s fascination with peculiar, seemingly paradoxical moments of visual illumination: light appears to emanate from behind the glacier, even though the sun sets off to the right of the canvas, casting long shadows that stretch leftwards of the figures. The painting is also uncommonly smooth, and despite the few textured dashes of a brush on the glacier itself, it exhibits none of the harsh, grainy consistency suggested by Kent’s bold pen lines. The rough texture of the inken sky in the drawings has given way to the rich, cleanly blended blue, teal, and yellow paints that make up the sky in Artist in Greenland. Where the painting is a celebration of light and visuality, the drawing devolves into visual obscurity.

Drawing of mountains and lakes
Fig. 8. Untitled illustration from N by E (1930).
Man with dogs on glacier
Fig. 9. Rockwell Kent (American, 1882-1971), Artist in Greenland, 1935 1960, oil on canvas 35 1/8 x 44 3/8 in. (90.2 x 112.8 cm.). The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchase with exchange funds from the Edward Joseph Gallagher III Memorial Collection, BMA 1991.10. Photography By: Mitro Hood.

“A picture of quiet adventure”: Kent’s Pictorial Narrative

In 1924, the architect, humor writer, and occasional journalist George Shepard Chappell published a book of satirical verses titled A Basket of Poses. Chappell’s poems range from rhyming cinquains and sestains to parodies of nursery rhymes adapted for the modern day (“Sing a song of motors / Standing in a row, / Waiting for the signal / Bidding them to go. / Tell the tale of traffic”) to a send up of “The Raven,” titled “The Cabaret Club”: “And the waiters hurry, hopping—where the loosened corks are popping— / ’Mid the dancers, nearly dropping, never stopping once for air.”[38] Chappell’s poems are accompanied by forty seven of Kent’s pen-and-ink illustrations, which he signed “Hogarth, Jr.” or occasionally “H, Jr.,” a persona he adopted for many of his early illustration projects. None of the images bears his name.[39]

Kent’s playful invocation of the influential eighteenth-century painter, printmaker, and satirist is a complex, even contradictory mode of rhetorical self-fashioning. On the one hand, Kent distances himself from his own illustrations; not wanting to be identified with the unserious work of book illustration (especially for a book of unserious poems), Kent erases his name from his work. On the other hand, in adopting the persona of Hogarth, Jr., Kent traces a lineage, however fictitious, to an artist of remarkable wit, variety, and humor. The most aesthetically ambitious and visually complex of these images—and the image most obviously indebted to Hogarth—accompanies the poem “The Party Wire” (fig. 10). Filling nearly the entire page (part of the poem occupied the blank space of the image reproduced here) is a crowded cityscape that invokes the cacophony of urban life. The chaos of the image is explicitly Hogarth-ian: “Intricacy in form,” Hogarth writes in The Analysis of Beauty (1753), his aesthetic treatise, “I shall define to be that peculiarity in the lines, which compose it, that leads the eye a wanton kind of chace, and from the pleasure that gives the mind, intitles it to the name of beautiful.”[40] Frédéric Ogée and Olivier Meslay have identified what they call the “visual disorder” of Hogarth’s images, by which they mean the “tangibility, or tactility” that results from Hogarth’s “constant proliferation of details.”[41] Following Hogarth’s “intricacy in form” and adapting the visual chaos of etchings such as Southwark Fair, Kent’s illustration for “The Party Wire” has no formal center, leading viewers on a “chace” from one aspect of the composition to the next; what Hogarth would call “the profuse variety of shapes” doesn’t allow our eye to linger too long on any one discrete section of the image (Hogarth, The Analysis of Beauty, 61). Through the chaos, we eventually discern a city torn, deliberately and provocatively, between Hogarth’s eighteenth-century London and Kent’s twentieth-century surroundings. Heavily stylized human figures—some of whom invoke Hogarth, and others the line drawings of Picasso or Matisse—lean out of windows as they might have done in the eighteenth century. Yet instead of calling out to one another in person, they remain absorbed in their telephones, simultaneously connected and isolated by the dizzying array of wires that bisect the city in the background. Like so much of Kent’s work, the “Party Wire” image is temporally agitated, indulging in the fantasy of a world unmediated by technology and yet acknowledging the impossibility of that world.

Drawing of town
Fig. 10. “The Party Wire,” illustration from A Basket of Poses (1924).

Positioning Kent alongside Hogarth helps to explain the former’s curious refusal to represent in image the most visually salient parts of the texts he illustrates: Hogarth’s commitment to intricacy and the “chace” of the eye were part of his broader fascination with pictorial narrativity, an aesthetic practice that had renewed currency in the twentieth-century art world to which Kent belonged. Hogarth didn’t just advocate for formal complexity within individual images, he also created print sequences meant to be “read” in order, the most famous of which remain A Harlot's Progress and its cousin, A Rake’s Progress.[42] For Hogarth, it wasn’t enough to tell a story in one single picture, and part of his distinctive contribution to pictorial narrativity was his emphasis on serialized sequences of images. As Ogée and Meslay have pointed out, seriality allowed Hogarth to experiment with what we might consider a kind of formal decentering: “the polycentric stage of single images,” Ogée and Meslay write, is in Hogarth “opened up and spread out over several successive images” (Ogée and Meslay, “William Hogarth,” 28). Hogarth’s print sequences aren’t collections of discrete images that cohere to tell a story, but rather a nexus of formally imbricated images that rely on one another to generate the focal point missing from each. These practices—using pictures to create complex narratives, designing images that work in concert and conversation with one another—fascinated Kent, and informed his own approach to book illustration and visual design. Like Hogarth, Kent wanted to create pictures that could be read, and he used his many illustration projects to fashion his own aesthetic of pictorial narrativity.

Not content merely to illuminate the verbal imagery of the books he illustrates, Kent invokes Hogarth to define and sustain a complex set of relations between word, image, and narration, thus participating in the emergence of a new grammar of pictorial storytelling. While pictorial narratives had existed for centuries, the early twentieth century saw artists exploiting the material form of the book to develop new modes of graphic storytelling and to fashion intricate narrative structures entirely through images.[43] The Flemish artist Frans Masereel produced more than twenty wordless novels executed entirely in woodcuts. Inspired in part by the German Expressionist revival of the woodcut, Masereel tells complicated stories entirely through images. Unlike the surrealist Max Ernst, whose collage novel Une semaine de bonté captures the bizarre logic of the subconscious through the surprising juxtaposition of disparate images, Masereel is committed to developing sequential, progressive pictorial narratives. In Germany, Otto Nückel published his book of leadcut engravings, Schicksal, in 1926.[44] The psychological depth of Nückel’s work—and the streamlined style of Kent’s pen-and-ink drawings and woodcuts—inspired the American artist Lynd Ward, who studied book design in Leipzig in the early twenties and went on to create his own wordless novel in woodcuts, Gods’ Man [sic], along with five other wordless novels, culminating with the 1937 publication of Vertigo. Combining the symbolic social commentary of Masereel with the acute psychological investigations of Nückel, Vertigo displays the subtly sophisticated potential of pictorial storytelling to tell the story of three intertwined characters who navigate the punishing landscape of Depression-era America.

In the forewords and introductions that he wrote to his own work, Kent often recommends a narrative reading of his images, challenging the assumption that images merely illuminate the prose they accompany. The original 1919 preface to his first book, Wilderness, describes how Kent prepared his manuscript to accord with the images that were to be reprinted alongside the text: the journal and letters that make up the text of the book “are given unchanged but for the flux of a new paragraph or chapter here and there to form a kind of narrative, the only possible literary accompaniment to the drawings of that period herein published.”[45] Kent carefully avoids using the word “illustration,” a term that etymologically implies the opposite of the relationship he wants to establish; referring to his images as “drawings” affords them autonomy from their verbal counterparts, positioning the prose as an auxiliary feature of his book. Moreover, Kent suggests that the paragraph breaks or chapter headings he added provide narrative continuity to the prose so that it can accompany the images, implying that his images already operate in narrative continuity. To alter certain formal details of the journal to create a cohesive narrative structure becomes “the only possible accompaniment” to the images. The purpose of this book is to showcase his visual art, and the prose, with alterations to tease out its latent narrativity, can join alongside.

Kent further underscores the important role that narrativity plays in shaping his approach to visual art when he describes the visual/verbal composition of Wilderness. “The whole,” he says, after describing how the prose has been altered to accompany the drawings, “is a picture of quiet adventure in the wilderness, above all an adventure of the spirit” (xxv). The idea that Wilderness offers a “picture” of quiet adventure is peculiar and suggestive. The word “adventure,” derived from the Latin adventurus (“about to happen”) is temporally unstable and implies progression, unfolding, development; Kent doesn’t use the word “picture” as synonymous with image, but rather to mean something closer to narrative, gesturing to his practice of narrative remediation.

And indeed the preface is not the only place “pictures” come to describe narrative potential and unfolding. Wilderness contains a set of images, known as The Mad Hermit sequence, that is meant to be read in order.[46] When the images from Wilderness were shown, at the Knoedler Gallery in New York City and with the sponsorship of the prominent critic and curator Christian Brinton, Kent wrote a brief introduction to the sequence, which is included in the 1996 Wesleyan University Press edition of Wilderness.[47] Reflecting on the occasional bouts of difficult solitude that confronted him while in Alaska, Kent writes that he would occasionally “indulge himself in picturing a hermit’s life as from fragmentary experience” (Wilderness, 196, emphasis added). Kent reiterates that part of his purpose was “in picturing the hermit’s growth,” and indeed the titular mad hermit literally grows throughout the sequence (196, emphasis original). The sixth (and penultimate) image, “Immanence” depicts a massive human body formally aligned with the mountainous terrain that fills both the landscape and the mirrored reflection in the lake. The figure is symbolically omnipotent—he occupies both background and foreground, is above and below—and gazes with shielded eyes pensively into the lake and alertly back up. To picture adventure, to picture growth; “picturing,” for Kent, is the act of uncovering narrative progression, and of using images to tell stories.

“Subsequent events incline me now”: Word, Image, Remediation

And yet—just as Kent doesn’t fit neatly in the history of book illustration, neither is he obviously and unambiguously part of the early twentieth-century revival of pictorial narrative. Unlike his contemporaries Ernst, Nückel, Masereel, and Ward, Kent never made a wordless “novel” entirely in pictures; the seven-image Mad Hermit sequence is the closest he ever came to making a nonverbal pictographic narrative.[48] The version of pictorial narrative that Kent embraces is stranger than that of many of his contemporaries: it’s more fragmented, doesn’t progress in a definitively ordered sequence, and often relies on an accompanying prose narrative that it complements, challenges, or even contradicts. In his travel narratives, Kent regularly (and playfully) disrupts sequential progression, as in the moment early in N by E, when he recounts the naming of his boat. Before telling us the name of the boat, he writes, “there was to me something forbidding about her name, ominous I could not then have said; however, subsequent events incline me now to read such meaning into it” (N by E, 8). In reporting that the name was ominously forbidding but not reporting the name, Kent recreates for readers the preposterous (in its etymological sense, meaning both before and after) experience of coming to see how future events affect earlier ones. The boat is named Direction (we come to find out), and Kent’s later experience—getting lost, getting shipwrecked—subsequently affects how he interprets, narrates, and draws earlier moments of his story, such as the naming of the boat. The hybrid visual/verbal texts that Kent creates are temporally unstable, relying on a process of narrative remediation where past, present, and future become intertwined in productively unpredictable ways.

This is precisely the sort of temporal disjunction that characterizes Kent’s approach to pictorial narrativity. His images revise one another in splintered sequence, as is evident in two images, Sunrise and Day’s End from Wilderness. The two drawings, separated by thirty pages, become bookends of a day, and the relationship between the images is signaled in the stark contrasts they establish. In the first image, a man stands outside his cabin, his back to the viewer and arms spread wide. The figure is almost priestlike, as his confident pose summons the sun from between twin mountain peaks (which appear frequently in the illustrations of Wilderness); the sun’s rays appear, purposefully, to illuminate from both the man and the sun itself, aligning the vitality of the figure with the serenity of the early morning. In Day’s End, by contrast, the man has retreated indoors, the wilderness framed—and contained—by the open doorway against which he leans. One hand remains visible, but only because it clings to the doorway. The energy of the image has faded not just into physical exhaustion but into emotional weariness, even despair. The twin peaks of the background remain visible under the figure’s arm but have lost their majesty.

His images frequently reflect on and revise the prose they accompany. The story of loneliness, despair, and desolation visible in images like Day’s End add a different, even conflicting perspective on Kent’s time in Alaska than the verbal record of his diary. In his prose (which, unlike Voyaging and N by E, hasn’t been turned into a narrative and remains mostly unedited from what he wrote in his diary at the time) Kent frequently reflects on the joyful company he shares with his charming young son, Rockwell, and his gracious host Olson. “To-night for supper,” Kent recalls on Friday, September 27, 1918, “a dish of Olson’s goat’s milk ‘Klabber’ (phonetic spelling), simply sour milk with all its cream upon it, thick to a jelly. It was, in the favorite expression of Rockwell, ‘delicious’” (Wilderness, 24). But in the images that depict man and boy, presumably Rockwell and Rockwell, the father appears distant, almost detached. On the Height portrays the father looking out over the range and son looking, not out over the Alaskan wilderness, but up at his father, as if pleading for the father’s companionship (fig. 11). He holds the father’s hand with both of his own, as if trying to summon feeling out of the father’s empty touch. A few pages later, in Meal Time, the boy again looks, longingly and obediently, at his father, who gazes absentmindedly out the window, unaware of or uninterested in the boy’s company. The images present a fractured, bleak notion of companionship, complicating the diary entries that emphasize the loving camaraderie the two shared.

Drawing of man and child
Fig. 11. On the Height, illustration from Wilderness (1920).

Other images likewise reveal the isolation, self-doubt, and despair that plagued Kent during his time in Alaska. Indeed, the journey West was preceded by revelations that Kent was having an affair, and his wife Kathleen allowed young Rockwell to join his father in part because, as Doug Capra puts it, “the boy served as a lifeline for their marriage.”[49] The marital struggles (and professional doubts) Kent felt are evident in the solitary, dejected figures that populate so many of the images. Foreboding, a counterpart to Day’s End, depicts a feminine (or androgynous?) figure with the opposite hand leaning against the opposite side of the door frame, the face fallen into the other hand (fig. 12); in Lone Man, a nude male collapses in on himself, his face guarded by his hand and knee, the landscape hardly visible behind him. Perhaps the most striking example, and indeed one of the most arresting images in the book, is the titular image Wilderness, which depicts a naked man bound to a dead tree that rises up in the foreground (fig. 13). The image has obvious religious connotations, but if the figure is supposed to be reminiscent of Christ, it’s a fallen, dejected Christ, without the hope of spiritual renewal. The iconic outspread arms of a Christ figure, evident in Sunrise, have collapsed; his hands and feet, the sites of Christ’s symbolic wounds, are hidden behind the tree. The horizontal bar of the cross is transformed into two limp, dead branches which tilt downward instead of out, and the head of the cross has broken off entirely, with the figure’s arm slung painfully through the empty, dead trunk of the tree. It is an image of solitary isolation, with none of the hopeful, invigorating, spiritually renewing implications of the crucifixion. Instead, the figure appears defeated by the punishing and uncaring nature that surrounds him. Together these images tell a story of Kent’s time in Alaska that contrasts sharply with the one he tells in his diary entries. The act of remediating word into image involves transforming the substance and structure of the narrative.

Drawing of woman standing in doorway
Fig. 12. Foreboding, illustration from Wilderness (1920).
Drawing of man tied to tree
Fig. 13. Wilderness, illustration from Wilderness (1920).

To fully appreciate Kent’s aesthetic practice, we need to understand his peculiar position in the liminal space between the history of book illustration and the tradition of pictorial narrative. Many of the images he made for both his own travel narratives and the books he was contracted to illustrate are intricately woven into the narrative fabric of the text: he uses contemporary practices of pictorial narrative to complicate his approach to book illustration, and he invokes traditional practices of book illustration to unveil nuanced, sophisticated ideas about how images can tell stories. The first full-size image of his first book Wilderness depicts a naked prophet figure leading a disheveled-looking man to a hilltop overlooking an awesome moon that rises between two mountain peaks. The image accompanies Kent’s description of his arrival in Alaska, where he is greeted by a solitary old man who says he will show the two Rockwells where they can live. The old man leads father and son to a harbor, and Kent is amazed by the splendor of the landscape: “What a scene! Twin lofty mountain masses flanked the entrance and from the back of these the land dipped downwards like a hammock swung between them, its lowest point behind the center crescent” (Wilderness, 4). On first reading the image seems to illustrate, figuratively and symbolically, Kent’s initial meeting with the old man: the twin peaks Kent describes register prominently in the image, as the white space of the mountains delineates the bottom third of the composition from the upper two-thirds and creates a formal distance between the two figures. The naked prophet could be a symbolic representation of the eccentrically charming Lars Matt Olson, the Swedish-Alaskan pioneer who greets the Kents and hosts them for the duration of their stay, while the bewildered looking figure at the bottom of the image could represent the weary elder Kent, newly arrived in Alaska after a long journey from his home in New York.

The straightforward if allegorical correspondence between description and illustration, however, is complicated by the caption accompanying the illustration, which doubles as the title. The caption is a quotation from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra and identifies the naked figure as the prophet Zarathustra and the other as the ugliest man, the latter of whom famously announces the death of God. The image becomes a curious hybrid, remediating both Kent’s text and Nietzsche’s and forging an intertextual link between the two narratives. We might be tempted to think of the image as a proper illustration of Nietzsche that figuratively overlays Kent’s own experience, except for the twin lofty peaks, which appear only in Wilderness and are not mentioned in Nietzsche’s text. If Olson and Kent have been allegorically transformed into Zarathustra and the ugliest man, then Zarathustra’s night-world and cave have been reimagined through the desolate grandeur of the Alaskan wild. The image transcends the discursive boundaries of Wilderness to establish the interpretive framework through which the book can be evaluated. Put another way, if we traditionally think of illustration as diegetically interpretive—the illustration is interpretive insofar as it visualizes moments within the discursive bounds of the story—Kent’s image becomes extradiegetically interpretive, drawing on an apparatus that exists outside the formal limits of the text. Kent becomes his own first interpretive critic, reconceiving his images not as subsidiary illuminations of the words but as fruitful opportunities to forge intertextual connections with the writers who inspired him.

Beyond the intertextual oscillation, the image also begets a complicated temporal inversion. Readers eventually come to learn that Kent has indeed been reading Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra; nearly 150 pages after the illustration, Kent reports:

Last night I made a drawing of Zarathustra leading the ugliest man by the hand out into the night to behold the round moon and silver waterfall. What a book to illustrate! The translator of it says that Zarathustra is such a being as Nietzsche would have liked himself to be,—in other words his ideal man. It seems to me that the ideal of a man is the real man. . . . A man is not a sum of discordant tendencies—but rather a being perfect for one special place; and this is Olson’s creed. (152)

Kent is, of course, describing the image that he would eventually place at the very start of his book, though he doesn’t remind us that we have already seen the drawing he’s describing. Word and image combine in dense narrative remediation: the Zarathustra illustration is proleptic, gesturing to the moment later in the book when Kent reflects on the act of producing the image; the quotation on page 152, meanwhile, returns us analeptically to the beginning of the story and the image itself. The prophet/Olson figure unifies the oscillating temporalities, as he replaces Zarathustra in both the initial image and in Kent’s criticism of Zarathustra as “the ideal man” later in the text.[50] The illustration of Nietzsche doubles as an illustration of his own text and reveals the complicated visual/verbal narrative praxis that defines Kent’s attempts to juggle—and remediate—the traditions of both book illustration and pictorial narrative.


[1] Former President Theodore Roosevelt was among the detractors. In a review of the exhibit titled “A Layman’s Views of an Art Exhibition,” Roosevelt swiftly denounces the art on display: “In this recent art exhibition the lunatic fringe was fully in evidence, especially in the rooms devoted to the Cubists and the Futurists, or Near-Impressionists.” See Theodore Roosevelt, “A Layman’s Views of an Art Exhibition,” Outlook, March 29, 1913, 719.

[2] Milton Brown, The Story of the Armory Show (New York: Joseph Hirshhorn Foundation, 1963), 105. Elsewhere Brown writes that American reactions to the Armory Show were likely more nuanced than this quote suggests. American audiences had been exposed, if only in fleeting glimpses, to the revolutions of European art, notably in Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue, which was known colloquially as simply “291.” See “The Armory Show in Retrospect,” in 1913 Armory Show: 50th Anniversary Exhibition (New York: Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, Henry Street Settlement, 1963), 35.

[3] Among the best parodies of Duchamp’s masterpiece is the cartoonist J. F. Griswold’s “The Rude Descending a Staircase (Rush Hour at the Subway),” in which a jumbled mess of angry New Yorkers shove their way down the stairs in the hopes of catching the train.

[4] Rockwell Kent, It’s Me O Lord (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1955), 236.

[5] Henri was himself included in the Armory Show, which no doubt exacerbated Kent’s animus toward the exhibit. Henri’s work, however, appeared largely dated in contrast with the new, modern forms. “New gods moved onto the stage,” Brown reflects, “and the old disappeared almost overnight. Perhaps the gravest blow was to Robert Henri and the Ashcan School; the former standard bearer of progressive art was in eclipse and his troops were irretrievably scattered” (Brown, “Retrospect” 35).

[6] In Kent’s telling, this earlier show elicited similarly dismissive critical sentiment as the Armory Show; he writes, “‘This is not art!’ some critics cried. ‘So what!’ we answered them” (Kent, It’s Me, 197).

[7] Kent was partially validated when another former teacher, Kenneth Hayes Miller, wrote him expressing his shock that Kent wasn’t included in the catalogue: “I was astounded to hear that you had not been invited to send to the International Exhibition,” Miller writes, “and cannot conceive of the microscopic smallness of mind that left you out.” But Miller’s letter probably didn’t so much console Kent as it did exacerbate his annoyance, as Miller ends by praising the extraordinary success of the show: “the exhibition had a broadening influence and accomplished in a few weeks what in the ordinary course would have taken as many years. It was like setting off a blast of dynamite in a cramped place—it blew everything wide open. I feel that art can really be free here now” (Kenneth Hayes Miller to Rockwell Kent, March 23, 1913, Rockwell Kent Papers, circa 1840–1993, bulk 1935–1961, reel 5212, frame 341–348, Kenneth Hayes, 1912–1915, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC).

[8] As Richard West writes, “When Rockwell Kent returned to the United States in 1935 from his third and final stay in Greenland, he was one of the best known artists in America and at the zenith of his career” (“Rockwell Kent: After the Odyssey,” in Distant Shores: The Odyssey of Rockwell Kent, ed. Constance Martin [Berkeley, CA: Chameleon Books, 2000], 113–121, 113).

[9] Illustration, Kent recalls, was “work that I might have taken great pleasure in had I not loved painting more; for whatever is less good than something better is not good enough” (It’s Me, 277).

[10] Much of Kent’s work is self-consciously ambiguous about its own generic classification. As Fielding Dupuy writes, “To call him simply a painter is to ignore his work as one of the leading American printmakers of his day. To call him a visual artist overlooks his impact as a literary figure who wrote bestselling books and illustrated classic works of literature. And to label him a creative artist disregards his role as a lecturer, labor leader, and peace activist who took courageous stands during a dark era in the history of the United States, the years of the Red Scare in the 1950s and 60s” (“Seeking a New Paradise for Mankind: Rockwell Kent in Tierra del Fuego and the Creation of a New National Image for Chile,” Artelogie 3 [2012]:

[11] For an extended discussion of Kent’s affinities with modern (and modernist) art, see Jake Wien, Rockwell Kent: The Mythic and the Modern (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 2005).

[12] Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999), 45, 273.

[13] Rockwell Kent, N by E (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1996), 23.

[14] There is some ambiguity about whose idea it was to illustrate Moby-Dick. Though both Megan Benton and Claire Badaracco suggest that Kittredge and Lakeside had the book in mind before contacting potential illustrators, Kent seems to suggest in his autobiography that it was his idea. He recalls that Kittredge initially offered him Two Years Before the Mast, and writes, “I liked the offer, and I liked the book; but, come to think of it, I liked another book more. That book was Moby Dick” (It’s Me O Lord, 430).

[15] William A. Kittredge, quoted in Megan Benton, Beauty and the Book: Fine Editions and Cultural Distinction in America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), 131.

[16] See Martin Hutner and Jerry Kelly, A Century for the Century: Fine Printed Books from 1900 to 1999 (Boston, MA: David R. Godine, 2004), and Benton, Beauty and the Book. For an excellent discussion of Kent’s Moby-Dick, see Matthew Jeffrey Abrams, “Illuminated Critique: The Kent Moby-Dick,” Word and Image: A Journal of Verbal/Visual Inquiry 33, no. 4 (2017).

[17] See Claire Badaracco, American Culture and the Marketplace: R. R. Donnelley’s Four American Books Campaign, 1926–1930 (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1992).

[18] The original agreement was to illustrate the book for $1,000. The three other illustrators who worked on the Four American Books Campaign all received $1,000, despite the protestations of Edward Wilson, who ended up illustrating Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast after Kent claimed Moby-Dick.

[19] Robert Frost, The Masque of Mercy (New York: Henry Holt, 1947), 4.

[20] Rockwell Kent, How I Make a Wood Cut (Pasadena, CA: Esto Publishing, 1934), 8.

[21] As Jake Wien has written, “Kent’s engravings for American Car and Foundry were generally acknowledged to be among the most striking examples of American advertising between the two world wars.” Wien continues: “These Symbolist images of idealized masculinity were risqué for their day, their frank sexuality mediated somewhat by their formal classicism” (Rockwell Kent, 118).

[22] While several of the woodblock prints in N by E were initially used as part of the A. C. F advertising campaign, Man at Mast was not one of them.

[23] The crayon technique, which combines crayon with india ink, is one that Kent would adopt with increasing frequency throughout his career. In Salamina (1935) and his Complete Works of William Shakespeare (1936), nearly all the illustrations are completed using this hybrid technique, which allowed for significantly more gradation than his pen-and-ink method.

[24] Jamie L. Jones, “Print Nostalgia: Skeuomorphism and Rockwell Kent’s Woodblock Style,” American Art 31, no. 3 (2017): 2–25, 4.

[25] For more on how developments in print technology nourished nineteenth-century visual culture, see Kate Flint’s excellent study of the Victorian fascination with visual perception, The Victorians and the Visual Imagination (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000). On the illustration of newspapers and magazines in the nineteenth century, consider The Lure of Illustration in the Nineteenth Century: Picture and Press, ed. Laurel Brake and Marysa Demoor (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

[26] The business of reproducing images, often in either woodcut or engraving, was massive. As Gerry Beegan has pointed out, images for newspapers or illustrated novels were often drawn by an artist and then etched or carved into woodblock prints by an engraver. See Gerry Beegan, The Mass Image: A Social History of Photomechanical Reproduction in Victorian London (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

[27] For a discussion of William Morris in the context of the Arts and Crafts movement, see The Rise of Everyday Design: The Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain and America, ed. Monica Penick and Christopher Long (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019). John Plotz identifies Morris’s “strategic anachronism.” Plotz writes, “It may seem an irony, but it is ultimately no paradox that Morris’s finest work in a medieval vein is shaped by his experiments with state-of-the-art technology” (Semi-Detached: The Aesthetics of Virtual Experience Since Dickens [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018], 154).

[28] As exhibitions such as Riva Castleman’s “A Century of Artists Books” (MOMA) and studies like Johanna Drucker’s The Century of Artists’ Books (New York: Granary Books, 2004) have suggested, the twentieth-century art world can be partially defined by the sustained commitment that many artists made to the production of books. As the art collector Philip Hofer wrote in 1935 in preparation for an exhibit on artists’ books, “almost all the important modern English, French, and German artists have done work for books” (quoted in Riva Castleman, A Century of Artists Books [New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1994], 11, exhibition catalog).

[29] As Fridolf Johnson writes, Kent’s visual style is “somewhat reminiscent of nineteenth-century illustrative engravings, but with a definite contemporary flavor” (The Illustrations of Rockwell Kent, ed. Fridolf Johnson [Mineola, NY: Dover, 1976], x).

[30] J. Hillis Miller, Illustration (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), 61.

[31] Edward Hodnett, Image and Text: Studies in the Illustration of English Literature (London: Scolar Press, 1982), 9.

[32] Stéphane Mallarmé, Mallarmé in Prose, ed. Mary Ann Caws (Cambridge: New Directions, 2001), 150.

[33] James writes that “anything that relieves responsible prose of the duty of being, while place before us, good enough, interesting and, if the question be of picture, pictorial enough, above all in itself, does it the worst of services, and may well inspire in the lover of literature certain lively questions as to the future of that institution” (Henry James, The Art of Criticism: Henry James on the Theory and the Practice of Fiction, ed. William Veeder and Susan Griffin [Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1986], 379–80).

[34] Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, or, The Whale (New York: Modern Library, 2000), 16.

[35] Rockwell Kent, Voyaging: Southward from the Strait of Magellan (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1999), 65.

[36] Kent also made a painting of this same image, entitled Lago Fognano, Tierra del Fuego. The layout of the composition is nearly identical, though the smooth watercolor of the painting lends the image a warmth that is missing from the harsh texture of the pen-and-ink version.

[37] The relationship between the two suggests the relationship between a photograph and its negative. Kent relied on photography in nearly all of his journeys, though none of his books reproduce the photographs he took, even when he tells readers explicitly that he has taken them.

[38] George S. Chappell, A Basket of Poses (New York: Albert & Charles Boni, 1924), 101, 59.

[39] The cover reads A Basket of Poses, George Chappell & Hogarth, Jr., and the title page similarly deflects, attributing the verses to Chappell and the pictures to Hogarth, Jr. The dedication is signed with the initials, G. S. C. and R. K., the only evidence of Kent’s affiliation with the book. As Kent’s popularity as an illustrator grew, he increasingly signed his work with his own name.

[40] William Hogarth, The Analysis of Beauty, ed. Ronald Paulson (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997), 33, spelling and italics original.

[41] Frédéric Ogée and Olivier Meslay, “William Hogarth and Modernity,” in Hogarth, ed. Mark Hallett and Christine Riding (London: Tate Publishing, 2006), 27.

[42] The latter had considerable cultural purchase in the twentieth century, when it was adapted into an opera composed by Igor Stravinsky, with a libretto by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman. Kent doesn’t say whether he saw Stravinsky’s adaptation of Hogarth’s print sequence, but in the 1920s he did accept and complete an advertising commission from Steinway and Sons interpreting Stravinsky’s 1910 ballet The Firebird.

[43] As Wendy Steiner writes, “The structure of the book thus served as the model not only for literary narrative but for pictorial narrative as well, with their need for discreteness and ordering. Picture series such as Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress, Harlot’s Progress, and Marriage a la Mode, which are reputedly the first picture stories in their own right independent of a previously written narrative (Witemeyer, p. 120), would be unimaginable without the structural model of the book” (Pictures of Romance: Form Against Context in Painting and Literature [Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1988], 17).

[44] The full title of Nückel’s book is Das Schicksal: eine Geschicht in Bildern, which was translated as Destiny: A Novel in Pictures and published in 1930.

[45] Rockwell Kent, Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1996), xxv. Kent would go on to write two more prefaces over the years, one for the Modern Library edition in 1930 and one in 1970, shortly before his death in 1971.

[46] In the original 1920 edition and the 1930 Modern Library edition, the images were interspersed with the prose. In the recent edition released by Wesleyan University Press, the sequence has been moved from the journal to the end, marking it more explicitly as a sequence.

[47] See David Traxel, An American Saga: The Life and Times of Rockwell Kent (New York: Harper and Row, 1980), 117.

[48] Kent’s Mad Hermit sequence is indebted more to William Blake and book illustration than Frans Masereel and German Expressionism. Visually and symbolically, the sequence invokes images such as Blake’s The Ancient of Days, and titles of individual images such as Immanence or The Vision suggest a Romantic, Blakean sense of prophetic spirituality. Blake became, for Kent, an aesthetic precursor, another artist who moved fluidly between the visual and the verbal arts; Blake also presented an opportunity for Kent to distance himself visually from artists like Masereel, whose roman in beelden were steeped in a tradition of social realism entirely absent from Kent’s Mad Hermit sequence.

[49] See Doug Capra’s “Foreword” to Kent’s Wilderness, xv–xvi.

[50] “My chief criticism of Zarathustra,” Kent writes, “is his taste for propaganda” (Wilderness, 152).