Rockwell Kent (American, 1882–1971)
Wake Up! (also titled Wake Up, America!)

Copyrighted, signed, inscribed and dated '© Rockwell Kent UAA 1941' bottom right, oil on burlap
33 7/8 x 44 1/4 in. (86 x 112.4cm)

Provenance

The Artist.
The Estate of the Artist.
Hammer Galleries, New York, New York.
Collection of Joseph M. Erdelac.
Babcock Galleries (now Driscoll Babcock), New York, New York.
Acquired directly from the above.
Collection of Vincent B. Murphy, Jr., New Jersey.
By descent in the family.
Private Collection, New Jersey.

Sold for $370,000
Estimated at $200,000 - $300,000


 

Copyrighted, signed, inscribed and dated '© Rockwell Kent UAA 1941' bottom right, oil on burlap
33 7/8 x 44 1/4 in. (86 x 112.4cm)

Provenance

The Artist.
The Estate of the Artist.
Hammer Galleries, New York, New York.
Collection of Joseph M. Erdelac.
Babcock Galleries (now Driscoll Babcock), New York, New York.
Acquired directly from the above.
Collection of Vincent B. Murphy, Jr., New Jersey.
By descent in the family.
Private Collection, New Jersey.

Exhibited

"Know and Defend America: Forty Paintings of Our Country and of the Outposts of Our Hemisphere by Rockwell Kent," Wildenstein & Company, New York, New York, February, 1942-March, 1943, no. 17 (as well as numerous other sites, traveling exhibition).

"Rockwell Kent (1882-1971): Selected Works," ACA Galleries, New York, New York, January-February, 1989.

"The View from Asgaard: Rockwell Kent's Adirondack Legacy," Adirondack Museum, Blue Mountain Lake, New York, May 1999-October, 2000.

Literature

Know and Defend America: Forty Paintings of Our Country and of the Outposts of Our Hemisphere by Rockwell Kent, an exhibition catalogue, Wildenstein & Company, New York, 1942, p. 41.

Royal Cortissoz, "Rockwell Kent and Divers Others," in New York Herald Tribune, February 8, 1942, p. 8.

John O'Connor, Jr., "Know and Defend America: An Exhibition of Paintings of Our Country and of the Outposts of Our Hemisphere by Rockwell Kent," in The Carnegie Magazine, Pittsburgh, January, 1943, Vol. XVI, no. 8, pp. 240-241 (illustrated p. 240).

Rockwell Kent, American Artists Group Monograph #2, New York, 1945, illustrated (no page no.).

Scott R. Ferris and Caroline M. Welsh, The View From Asgaard: Rockwell Kent's Adirondack Legacy, Adirondack Museum, Blue Mountain Lake, New York, 1999, fig. 67, pp. 38-40 (illustrated p. 39).

Note

We wish to thank expert Scott Ferris for writing the above essay and for kindly helping us catalog this important work by the artist.

Rockwell Kent involved himself in politics early on in life, joining the Socialist Party of America in 1904, and casting his vote for the perennial presidential candidate, Eugene V. Debs the same year. The roots of the artist’s democratic-socialist expression initially surfaced on the front pages of The New York Evening Call, where his drawings portrayed the challenges and espoused the rights of the laborer (1909); his images for The Patriots Progress or The Long Road (1917) exposed his anti-war heart; and his paintings and wood engraving of the severed heads of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (1927) brought to light what many believed were the injustices within the American judicial system. From the 1930s on, Kent’s commentary on these issues took center stage (some would say) over his accomplishment as a “fine-artist” and writer.
Wake Up! —also known as Wake Up, America!— belongs to a series of drawings, paintings, prints and posters that provide useful commentary on Kent’s contemporary topicality. It is one of a handful of large, well-executed, sociopolitical canvases that includes Heavy, Heavy Hangs Over Thy Head (Baltimore Museum of Art) and Bombs Away (Columbus Museum of Art); and a statement on the artist’s return to the fight against fascism, after the world failed to address its rising viperous head during the Spanish Civil War (a position that required the artist to temporarily relinquish his anti-war stance in an effort to defeat the evils of fascism). The title was not new to American war propaganda art. One example is James Montgomery Flagg’s 1917 poster, Wake Up, America!: Civilization Calls Every Man Woman and Child!, a significantly tamer composition than Kent’s as Flagg chooses to depict America, herself, as a young sleepy woman.
In comparison, Kent’s painting can be described as more radical. In a ravaged landscape surrounded by flames stands an Amazon-like figure, which represents the Spirit of War. Armed with a rifle, she is ready for battle, and encourages a lethargic citizen, America itself, to join her. In a 1994 letter to a one time owner of the painting, Kent’s widow, Sally Kent Gorton, summarized the composition best when she wrote: “That the recumbent male is indifferent to what is going on in the world, specifically the ever growing menace of Hitlerism: the bombing of London; the invasion of Czechoslovakia; etc. etc. etc. Norway. The USSR. To these invasions the armed female is responding with the cry: WAKE UP AMERICA! And, as you know, the United States entered the war in 1941. Roosevelt having finally capitulated on his determination that we should not participate.”
The artist’s development of this painting was complex. It emerged from numerous pencil sketches (some in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia University), and a small gouache and transparent watercolor study that finalized the layout of the composition. The upper torso of the Spirit of War appears to have its formalist origins in the Kent designed Hugo Lafayette Black medallion, Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness (1938). In content and in some respects form, this figure closely relates to Kent’s Winged Victory and Our Seamen, Give ‘Em A Hand poster studies, as well as his Forest Fires Aid the Enemy: Volunteer to Fight Them and Eternal Vigilance is the Price of Liberty poster and lithograph.
The painting first appeared in the exhibition, “Know and Defend America”. In the catalogue that accompanied the exhibition Kent wrote: “This was painted six months ago. We’ve woken up now. We’ll stay awake; not only to complete the job that has been forced upon us, but to take up with renewed energy the cultivation of our own garden for the realization, at long last, of the Life, Liberty and Happiness for everyone that can give meaning to our faith in democracy.”
Both Royal Cortissoz, the noted art critic, and John O’Connor, Jr., assistant director of the Carnegie Institute, at the time, singled out the painting when they commented on the exhibition. In Cortissoz’s critique he remarked: "Landscapes predominate upon this occasion, but several figure pieces are on the walls. One of the best of the latter is the ‘Wake Up’ (...) in which the spirit of war, gun in hand, admonishes a lethargic citizen”; whereas O’Connor noted that “the latest painting in the exhibition is ‘Wake Up’ which (...) serve[s] as the theme of the show.”

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