Rook, born in New York City, became one of the most original impressionists at Old Lyme. First he was a student of Benjamin Constant and Jean-Paul Laurens at the Académie Julian. Life started out to be rather promising for Rook, around the turn of the century. He exhibited at the Cincinnati Art Museum and at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, both in 1898, when his harbor scene, entitled Pearl Clouds — Moonlight was reproduced in International Studio, in April. In addition, the PAFA presented him with the Temple Gold Medal for Deserted Street, Moonlight, which the Academy purchased. Three years later, Rook was awarded a bronze medal at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, where he exhibited three landscapes. Caffin (1902, p. xxxvi) praised the artist’s “translucent quality of color,” which suggests a study of color theory. Also in 1901, Rook married Edith Sone. For most of 1902, the Rooks were in Mexico.
Rook came to Old Lyme in October of 1903. The date is significant because Childe Hassam was also there that month. Hassam would more or less re-orient the artists’ colony from Tonalism to impressionism. Rook would move there permanently two years later. He took two medals at the St. Louis Universal Exposition (1904) where his landscapes from the Mexican trip were displayed. More awards followed: a silver medal at the International Fine Arts Exposition in Buenos Aires, 1910, a gold medal at San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915, a Corcoran Bronze Medal, and a William A. Clark Award in 1919 for Peonies. By 1924, the artist was made a National Academician. Despite all these awards and recognition, Rook did little in the way of selling his art and reportedly, his prices were too high. His paintings were handled by Macbeth and Grand Central Art Galleries.
Rook was active in Old Lyme’s art community. As stated above, he would have met Hassam that October in 1903 but Willard Metcalf had departed at the end of the summer. As several writers have explained (Connecticut and American Impressionism, 1980, p. 123), Hassam “was the catalyst around whom [impressionism] coalesced.” Rook’s niece, Virginia Rook Garver, who happened to be the grand-niece of Hassam, confirmed that Rook and Hassam knew each other in Europe — before they went to Old Lyme (Fischer, 1987, p. 19). Rook was one of the relatively young painters to come to Old Lyme, along with Gifford Beal, William Chadwick, and Robert Nisbet, on the wave of impressionism, initiated there by Hassam and Metcalf. Old Lyme became a center of American impressionism, and as Donelson F. Hoopes remarked, “under Hassam, the shoreline of Connecticut became a kind of Giverny of America.” Among Ranger’s group, palettes started to become lighter, except those of the most determined tonalists. Ranger himself, perhaps admitting defeat, moved to Noank in 1904.
Rook is best known for his views of Bradbury’s Mill, which was soon called Rook’s Mill, owing to the painter’s many versions of the scene. One, called Swirling Waters, dated ca. 1917, is in the Lyme Historical Society. Even more famous is Rook’s Laurel, dated between 1905 and 1910 (Florence Griswold Museum), in which a profuse laurel bush (the state flower), is set off by a spectacular Constable-like background. But Swirling Waters could never be confused with Constable, with its violent brushwork, impasto-layered water, and bright, almost chalky, plein-air palette. Gerdts (1984, p. 226) compares the paintings of Walter Griffin. Another source (for Lloyd, 1907, p. XXI) might be Walter Schofield.
Some summers, Rook traveled to Monhegan Island to enjoy cooler temperatures. His Surf at Monhegan, in the collection of Nelson H. White, dated 1910, documents Rook’s activity there. Like Swirling Waters, it offers evidence of how much white Rook applied to his palette. Rook denied being an impressionist and called himself a realist. When interviewed, Rook exclaimed that he did not wish to be associated with “crazy Van Gogh.” On the other hand, his Grey Sea, Monhegan and Whitefaced Chasm were exhibited at the Armory Show, hardly a place for a realist. Despite himself, Rook produced works that resemble the bold post-impressionistic canvases of Helen Hamilton, who was directly influenced by Van Gogh. One might compare Swirling Waters to Hamilton’s Old Mill near Silvermine, to show stylistic affinities. Both artists knew how to handle rushing water, using a masterful, fully loaded brush. A late style was identified by Fischer (1987), exemplified by the detailed and fussy still-life called Reflections in a Samovar, ca. 1923, showing how Rook distanced himself further from modernism. Rook passed away in New London, Connecticut.