By John Chambless
In 1905, artist and illustrator Rockwell Kent visited Monhegan Island, a tiny dot of land off the coast of Maine. He lived and painted there until 1910, and then returned in 1947 to work until 1953. In 1920, the artist N.C. Wyeth had a home in Port Clyde, Maine, that served as a departure point for a ferry that went to Monhegan.
In the late 1950s, N.C.'s son Andrew Wyeth and his young son, Jamie, visited Monhegan. The impression that it left on them led Jamie, in 1968, to purchase a home built there by Kent. Wyeth has returned ever since, capturing the island's craggy peaks, rolling waves and its handful of year-round residents.
In the new exhibition, "Jamie Wyeth, Rockwell Kent and Monhegan," which opened last weekend at the Brandywine River Museum, you get a strong sense of the wildness of the island and the extremes which inspired the artists. It's certainly as close as most people will ever get to the island itself, which remains sparsely populated.
For many visitors, it's Kent's work that will be the biggest surprise. His "Toilers of the Sea" (1907) is a razor-sharp depiction of fishermen in rowboats, dwarfed by a monolith of black rock as they struggle against the waves. Kent's depiction of frost clinging to the rock is a tiny bit of perfection.
The long, gray swell of stone in Kent's "Lone Rock and Sea" (1950) is a beached-whale shape in a sea of brown grass. It's a sad elegy, and you can sense the silence of the scene. In "Cranberrying, Monhegan," Kent depicts the island's inhabitants as tiny flecks of color in an expanse of mud-colored earth, under a lead-gray sky. His oils of other coves and harbors, devoid of signs of life, capture the isolation and vastmess of the island as he found it in the early 1900s.
Kent does depict the island's residents in detail in "Memorial Day, Monhegan" (1950), in which well-dressed residents put flowers on graves. There's also a series of wonderful little sketches on paper by Kent that focus on individual houses, fishermen in boats, and a portrait of Kent himself -- or at least his feet -- in "Interior of a Cottage, Monhegan Island," in which we see Kent's point of view -- a hand, a sketchpad, his feet propped up on a kitchen chair, with a dog dozing nearby.
Wyeth's depictions of the island are just as awe-struck and contemplative as Kent's work. His knack for eerie imagery is in full effect in his imaginary portrait of Kent, in which the late artist stares out at the viewer as a tiny figure falls from the rocky crag behind him. The 2013 painting refers to the case of an artist's model who died on the island under mysterious circumstances.
Wyeth's deep attachment to the spirit of the island is shown in "A Recurring Dream" (2011), in which his father Andrew, and his grandfather N.C. Wyeth, wearing rain slickers, gaze out at the surf from a rocky bluff on Monhegan. In "Sea Watchers" (2009), they are joined, improbably, by Andy Warhol and Winslow Homer. The paintings are based on a dream Wyeth had just after Andrew died.
Wyeth's "Swimdogs" (2011) confronts the viewer with the wild eyes of three dogs -- one treading water in a rough sea, one icily staring out, and one poking his head into the frame, tongue lolling. It's as if they're enjoying the challenge of the vicious waves and defying the danger.
In "Battleship" (2002), Wyeth captures a U.S. Navy warship as it passes the island on a glassy sea. A group of Monhegan residents and a young boy, Kyle Murdock, who has appeared in several of Wyeth's paintings of Monhegan, stare out at the incongrously threatening ship. It says a lot about the way Monhegan has passed the centuries thanks to its isolation and indomitable spirit.
In "Kent House" (1972), Wyeth's home is shown perched on a mountain of jagged boulders, neat and calm in a wild landscape. On the other hand, in "Hekking House" (1968), the roofline of a majestic home is seen nearly submerged in grass, with only the thin line of the sea beyond. In a way, the roof is like a ship, placidly sailing through the scene.
Wyeth's "Islanders" (1990) is perhaps the best-known of his works here. It shows two men on the porch of a clapboard houme, displaying a porch-size American flag. The sombrero one man is wearing says a lot about the spirit of the residents.
There's another sign of the island's strength in Wyeth's "Boundary Pins" (1974), which shows three slightly crooked metal posts that have somehow been hammered into bare rock, near the shadow of a weather-beaten home.
A place of vivid aquamarine seas and black-as-night granite, Monhegan develops a personality of its own after you've explored this exhibit. It's an education about how the island has shaped generations of artists who are drawn to its crashing waves, lonely expanses and its determined residents.
The exhibition continues through Nov. 17. Visit www.brandywinemuseum.org or call 610-388-2700 for more information.