Gray Day belongs to an important series of paintings that Rockwell Kent created at the height of his career. A significant voice in the dialogue on American modernism, Kent honed his distinctive aesthetic while traveling to many of the world’s most remote locales including Greenland, where he visited three times between 1929 and 1935. He painted Gray Day during his final trip to this land that captured his imagination.
By the late 1930s Kent's popularity had reached such heights that The New Yorker wrote: "that day will mark a precedent, which brings no news of Rockwell Kent" (November 20, 1937). Artists for Ken, Americana, Ballyhoo and other publications, caricatured Kent for his renowned wanderlust. Miguel Covarrubias played on Kent's restless endeavors to attain greater heights, whereas Alan Dunn played on everyman's desire to acquire "a new Rockwell Kent." With Newfoundland, Alaska, Tierra del Fuego, and Greenland in his travelogues, Kent had become synonymous with the adventurous spirit; and while paintings like Gray Day are records of the artist's journeys, they are, above all, an extension of the artist himself.
Throughout Kent's adventurous artistic career, he had the support of several patrons–the art dealer Charles Daniel, who represented artists such as Man Ray and Marsden Hartley, and noted collectors Ferdinand Howald and Duncan Phillips–which enabled him to travel and paint remote places. In 1950 he met a new patron, Joseph James (J.J.) Ryan, the grandson of financier Thomas Fortune Ryan. In a letter to Robert McIntyre, of Macbeth Gallery, who served to introduce the artist and collector, Kent stated: "Gray Day, as I have told you, is in my judgment one of my very finest things." Gray Day, which belonged to J.J. Ryan for decades, was chosen as a full page color illustration in Kent's autobiography, It's Me O Lord (Dodd, Mead and Co., 1955). Ryan ultimately came to acquire over thirty oils and numerous works on paper for his collection.
Rockwell Kent was as roughly hewn from the proverbial American maple tree as were his spiritual antecedents Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman. Thomas Cole's conveyance of the "voyage of life" was a path similarly taken by Kent though with the harder edge of Winslow Homer and the spirit of Mother Nature. William Merritt Chase and Kenneth Hayes Miller helped the younger artist develop his sense of design and technical aptitude but it was Robert Henri and Abbott Handerson Thayer who instilled Kent with the belief in "art for Life's sake"; and Kent specifically credits Thayer for introducing him to the Nordic saga, Burnt Nyal, which he said "opened the gate upon that highway to the North which led at last to Greenland and Alaska." (Kent, It's Me O Lord). (Kent met, and eventually married, Thayer's niece, Kathleen Whiting, whom he met at the elder's home).
In Greenland, surrounded by vast open spaces, polar light, endless horizons and barren terrain, Kent had found his ideal motif. His paintings Gray Day, Blue Day, and Citadel (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), among others, represent the consummation between artist and subject that defines his most revered work. Though other modernists, such as Marsden Hartley, Georgia O'Keeffe and Arthur Dove, used their art to visually reflect on nature throughout their careers, the transcendent landscape has become Kent's most distinctive theme.
Wassily Kandinsky, a German painter solidly of the abstract camp, who influenced many American modernists, proposed that "with the artistic reduced to a minimum, the soul of the object can be heard at its strongest through its shell because tasteful outer beauty can no longer be a distraction" (Donald Kuspit, "Concerning the Spiritual in Contemporary Art," The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890 – 1985, New York, p. 314). In Gray Day Kent builds his representational imagery of the mountains of Kekertarssuak Island out of what appear to be random dabs and brushstrokes of varying sizes, shapes and orientation, floating within flat, horizontal fields of color–blues, magentas and raw umber—that would be used by artists Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb in the decades to come.
While on his solitary journeys by dog sled throughout western Greenland, Kent heard the sounds of the wind sweeping across the ice packed fjords, the barking of his dogs, the scraping of the rails of his sled on the terrain, and the soul of the landscape. His were the ears of a pantheist–one who sees the creation as God, as opposed to a theist who sees God as the creator. Kent defined his belief system when he stated: "God had become to me the symbol of the life force of our world and universe; a name for the immense unknown. Imponderable, yet immanent in man, in beasts… in the earth, sun, moon and stars” (It's Me O Lord, New York, 1955, p. 138).
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