In the 1940s, the Bituminous Coal Institute commissioned one of America’s best-known 20th century realists, Rockwell Kent, to create a series of paintings for advertisements demonstrating the promise of coal as the energy source for post-war America.
The Art Museum of WVU currently holds one of the paintings in Kent’s seriestitled “To Make Dream Homes Come True.” The work is now on view at the museum as part of its opening exhibition and it will be the subject of the next “Art Up Close!” event on Tuesday, Dec. 8.
Art historian Eric Schruers will present “Rockwell Kent’s Lost Bituminous Coal Series Rediscovered,” beginning at 5:30 p.m. in the Museum Education Center Grand Hall. The presentation will be followed by a question-and-answer session and light refreshments will be served. Those attending will also be able to view the painting in the upper gallery of the museum.
According to Schruers, Kent’s “To Make Dreams Home Come True” is part of one of the artist’s most bizarre and least-known series of works.
“Although the Bituminous Coal Series represented the dynamic interplay of art, industry, politics and society in Postwar America, it was disavowed by Kent and the paintings were relegated to store rooms and basements by the institutions to which the works were later presented,” he said.
“Long forgotten and still partially lost, the series has now been brought back into the light. The paintings are unique in conception, unusual in subject matter, and deserving of attention.”
As a young artist, Rockwell Kent (1882-1971) studied with William Merritt Chase. In addition to his paintings, he was well known as an author and illustrator, and as an advocate for progressive politics. He began his career as an illustrator in 1915 with the acceptance and publication of his drawings in magazines such as Vanity Fair and Puck. At the time, he had not yet found success as a painter. To make ends meet he turned to advertising and soon found work drawing automobile ads for Rolls Royce. By the end of the 1920s, his illustrations were used to sell everything from perfume and jewelry to Steinway pianos.
By the 1940s, Kent was a prominent American realist painter and the Bituminous Coal Industry was one of several organizations that turned to the fine arts for promotional purposes after the war.
According to Schruers, Kent’s commission was for more than illustrations, since he was to produce 12 large oil paintingsin essence a mini-collection of industrial artdevoted to the glorification of the coal industry and the contributions it made to modern civilization.
Each painting in the series depicts a scene showing the benefits derived from coal. Superimposed over each scene is a figure resembling an ancient Greek God, holding a lump of bituminous coal that glows with a whitish light.
“To Make Dream Homes Come True,” created in 1945, was number six in the series and promoted coal for home heating, appearing in magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post. In this painting, the God-like figure beams over the blueprint of a planned American suburb in the years just following World War II. The chunk of coal in the figure’s right hand illuminates the houses being positioned in the expanding development.
Schruers has been key to bringing Kent’s Bituminous Coal Series to public attention. He currently serves as temporary assistant professor of art history at Fairmont State University and also as instructor of art history and gallery director of the Martha Gault Art Gallery at Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania.
He has published widely in the area of industrial art, particularly in relation to the coal industry. He is co-author of the book “Wonders of Works and Labor: The Steidle Collection of American Industrial Art” (2009).
Art Up Close! events are held several times each year and present WVU faculty and guest artists from various disciplines discussing a single work of art from the perspectives of their disciplines. Audience members have the opportunity to view the actual works of art at the programs.
Art Up Close! is co-sponsored by the Art Museum of WVU and the Friends of the Museum, a membership group for people who enjoy the arts and social, educational and cultural activities revolving around art.
For more information about the program on Dec. 8, contact the Art Museum of WVU at (304) 292-4359.