Rockwell Kent (and my internship at the Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Hardly a week goes by without my thinking of my internship at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I remember it with such fondness. I had an incredible mentor, smart and caring, and it was good in so many ways. Here’s a post about a bit of that experience and about the work of an artist I like whom I discovered there.


The PMA is the most gorgeous place I’ve ever worked at. I liked being in a big intern class. There were around 40 of us scattered in different departments.  The overwhelming majority were art history majors. My department was an exception. I was a strategic planning intern in the Executive Offices, and worked with three people, all of them grad students: a Duke Law second-year worked for the general counsel; a Cooperstown student worked for government affairs; and a Wharton MBA second-year worked for the director of the museum. I was a sophomore working for the Assistant Director for Administration, developing a strategic plan for the museum over the next decade.

I commuted home every day with a student from NYU and a student from Stanford. We all took the Warminster Line into the suburbs. It was fun getting to know the arts majors from liberal arts colleges.

I applied to be a PMA intern in 2012 because of its museum studies program. I’ve never really studied art or spent much time in art museums, and wanted to spend a summer to correct that. The coolest part of the internship were the tours of the galleries conducted by the curators who managed them. As an intern for strategic planning I worked in administration, but received an education in art every day I was there.

In the second week of the internship we were taken on a tour by a curator to a new exhibit. It was there that I found an artist that I’m still moved by.

His name was Rockwell Kent. I hadn’t ever heard of him before. He was from New York, was active in the war years, and never got much involved in some of the crazier movements of his time. He can’t really be identified as an expressionist or a surrealist, though there are elements of the fantastic in most of his art.

He’s lived an interesting life. He was very active as a socialist, and was later Soviet sympathizer who won a Lenin Peace Prize. He also spent significant chunks of life in complete solitude in the wilderness of Alaska, Newfoundland, and Greenland.

Fun fact: He was plaintiff in the Supreme Court case Kent v. Dulles. The government denied him a passport to use to attend a conference in Finland. He sued for declaratory relief, saw summary judgment issued against him, and then won in the Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision.

Here’s why I like his art.

Kent made a lot of prints of otherworldly figures in enormous spaces. They usually stood alone, undressed, against a massive backdrop. That backdrop was often a starry sky, the desert, or the ocean. But they’re usually nothing other than background. The figures usually take up more than a majority of the print.


It’s as if these figures have conquered a massive part of nature. In fact they look like triumphant heroes. Except often they have looks of anguish. They look utterly, utterly alone. And they’ve mastered the loneliness.


You get a sense that the figures are content with loneliness. Either that or the total opposite: they’ve given in to despair. I find them tremendously moving.


They look supernatural, floating in space.


He also sketched for Life magazine four of his conjectures for how the world might end. One of them was that gravity might stop working.


The other was that the sun would flare.


Kent was a socialist, and you can imagine these people as heroes of resistance. But I can’t help also to think of them as Randian figures: alone, and having conquered the need to be with others. Doesn’t that apply?

Anyway, Kent also painted and did some sketches as satirist in the ‘20s. He also made some illustrations of Moby Dick, which are wonderful

Here’s the PMA’s online archive of Kent’s work.


Posted in Art