As an organizer of the landmark New York Armory show of 1913 (The International Exhibition of Modern Art), painter Walt Kuhn was a visionary of his era, introducing European modern art to American audiences for the first time. Kuhn's daring personality was matched only to that of his art - theatrical, colorful, and hauntingly solemn at times.
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Walter Kuhn was born on October 27, 1877 in Brooklyn, NY. His father, Francis Kuhn, was the owner of a ship provisioning business and several New York hotels. Kuhn’s mother, Amelia Hergehan, introduced her son to art and theater at a young age. From this point forward, Kuhn’s lifelong interest in art, theater and the circus began. For the remainder of his life, employment in the entertainment industry acted as a second career and source of income for the artist. More importantly, it provided limitless inspiration for his canvases.
At the age of 15, Kuhn sold his first drawings to a magazine and began to sign his name “Walt.” In 1893, he enrolled in evening art classes at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute. However, he soon lost interest in becoming an artist and instead, decided to open a bicycle shop in Brooklyn. In his lifetime, Kuhn would become known for his impulsive, yet dedicated personality.
By 1899, Kuhn had become enamored with ideas of the American West, and with only $60 in his pocket, he set out for California. Upon his arrival in San Francisco, he again took up the pen and became a cartoonist for WASP magazine. In 1901, the young artist departed for Paris, where he enrolled in formal art classes at the Academy Colarossi. Finding too little discipline for his liking in Paris, Kuhn soon left for the Royal Academy in Munich, where he studied under Barbizon painter Heinrich von Zugel (1850-1941).
In 1903, he returned to New York and immersed himself in the booming art scene. While continuing to work as an illustrator for local journals, he helped manage the Kit Kat Club- an organization that raised funds for scholarships at the National Academy of Design. In 1905, he held his first exhibition at the artist run, Salmagundi Club, establishing himself as both a cartoonist and a serious painter. That same year, he submitted his first illustrations to LIFE magazine.
Kuhn regularly spent his summers in Fort Lee, NJ— one of the early homes of the movie industry. The area provided the maturing artist with the creative environment he needed to thrive. When the New York School of Art moved to the area in the summer of 1908, Kuhn joined the faculty. However, he soon came to dislike his experience as an instructor, and when the school moved back to New York, he also went along- only this time, in separate ways. Upon his return, he married Vera Spier. The couple had one child, a daughter Brenda Kuhn.
While his home life was beginning to blossom, so was his career. In 1909, he spent the year preparing his first one-man exhibition for the Madison Gallery in New York. The show proved to be a huge success. Soon after, Kuhn took part in establishing the Association of American Painters and Sculptors- the organization responsible for the landmark Armory Show of 1913. As the executive secretary, he was responsible for finding artists to participate. The Armory Show, which displayed both European and American modern art to New York audiences for the first time, proved to be a huge success de scandale. In 1938, Kuhn published an “insider’s” viewpoint to the event in his seminal essay, “The Story of the Armory Show.” Following the exhibition, Kuhn began to explore new ways for artists to break established barriers. In 1917, he founded the Penguin Club, an organization where artists held open meetings and provided criticism for each other.
By 1925, Kuhn’s health had taken a dramatic turn when a duodenal ulcer almost killed him. After a prolonged recovery, he eventually joined the faculty of the Art Student’s League. He also took up a commission for the Union Pacific Railroad, in which he completed designs for new club cars. Almost foreseeing the end of his career, the aging artist organized his first retrospective in 1939, which took the form of a book titled, Fifty Paintings by Walt Kuhn.
By the 1940s, Kuhn’s eccentric behavior began to take on unstable forms that had never surfaced before. He became increasingly distant, and when the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus was in town, he religiously attended. In consequence, his unsound demeanor did not go unnoticed, and in 1948, he was institutionalized.
Kuhn’s last years are marked with tragedy and remain a mystery. Rumors of attempted suicides plague his biographies. Nonetheless, on July 13, 1949, he died instantly from a perforated ulcer. In a bittersweet act, Vera and Brenda Kuhn placed his favorite drawing pen in his jacket pocket prior to his wake.
II. AN ANALYSIS OF THE ARTIST'S WORK
“If I can leave at least one fine painting, I will be content.”- Walt Kuhn
Leaving countless important paintings behind at the time of his death, Walt Kuhn greatly surpassed his goal. He had produced over 3,000 figure studies and was highly honored as a skilled cartoonist, printmaker, designer and painter. His art was unique to the time and stood apart from other fashions in American art.
Like many artists before him, Kuhn quite notoriously lied about his own age in hopes to appear younger than he actually was. In turn, he believed that this would make his talent as an artist appear to be all the more impressive. To wit, Kuhn destroyed many of his first paintings as to “cover-up” any traces of mediocrity. What remains of Kuhn’s oeuvre are some of the most powerful works in American art history. Although he was a skilled painter of still-lifes, he is most famous for his portraits. His paintings of circus performers and vaudeville entertainers hark back to the portraits of commedia dell'arte actors done by the French masters centuries earlier. In Kuhn’s own time, no other artist approached the subject as intimately as he had.
The lasting impact of his paintings is largely due to the fact that he used actual circus and vaudeville performers as models. As Curator Efram Laurent Burk has noted in his catalogue on the artist, Kuhn’s models are portrayed in personalities very different from the joyful characters they are paid to play in public. They are detached from their performance stages and are placed outside of their normal environment against a varied backdrop of purple, red, and black hues. Staring intently out at the viewer, the circus performers of Kuhn’s portraits no longer cheerfully entertain their audience; rather they connect to the viewer on a more symbolic and psychological level.
They hold dignified, yet solemn poses and facial expressions. Choirgirls have become things of oddity rather than enjoyment. Burdened by their ornate headdresses, they stare out from the canvas, fully aware that they are on display. Clowns refuse to dawn a smile on their painted faces. Acrobats lay their weary heads down for a moment of rest between performances. Behind the faces of Kuhn’s performers, lies a haunting reminder of life’s inescapable hardships.
1877 Born on October 27 in Brooklyn, NY
1893 Studies at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute
1897 Opens a bicycle shop in Brooklyn, NY
1899 Travels to San Francisco, CA, where he becomes a cartoonist for WASP magazine
1901-02 Studies in Paris at the Academy Colarossi and then in Munich at the Royal Academy
1903 Moves to New York and winters in Savannah, GA and Florida
1904 Summers in Munich and Paris
1908 Teaches at New York School of Art
1909 Marries Vera Spier
1912-13 Holds office as the Executive Secretary for the Armory Show
1915-27 Creates numerous lithographs and etchings
1917-19 Establishes the Penguin Club
1920 Begins to design theater sets and buys cottage with a studio in Ogunquit, ME
1925 Suffers from a serious stomach ulcer
1927-28 Instructs at the Art Students’ League, NY
1931-33 Tours Europe
1930 Acts as advisor for the new Marie Harriman Gallery
1936 Begins designs for three club cars for the Union Pacific Railroad
1938 Publishes “The Story of the Armory Show”
1941-48 Holds a press pass for the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus
1948 Spends winter with the circus at Sarasota, FL. Buys house at Cape Neddick, ME. Suffers from a nervous breakdown and is institutionalized.
1949 Died suddenly in White Plains, NY of a perforated stomach ulcer
Addison Gallery of American Art, MA
Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, TX
Archives of American Art, Washington D.C.
Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University, IL
Butler Institute of American Art, OH
Currier Gallery of Art, NH
Delaware Art Museum
Denver Art Museum
Detroit Institute of Art
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, CA
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C.
Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, MO
Museum of Modern Art, NY
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach, CA
The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.
Santa Barbara Museum of Art, CA
Sheldon Art Gallery, Lincoln, NE
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.
Southern Alleghenies Museum, PA
Springfield Museum of Art, OH
Terra Foundation for the Arts, Chicago, IL
University of Nebraska
Westmoreland Museum of American Art, Greensburg, PA
Wichita Art Museum, KS
Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT
1905 Salmagundi Club, NY
1908 Boston Art Club, MA
1908-12, 1921, 1945-49 Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts
1911 Madison Gallery
1913Armory Show, NY, NY
1914-15 Montross Gallery
1923, 1924 Salons of America
1927 Grand Central Galleries, NY
1928 Beaux Arts Gallery, San Francisco, CA
1930 San Francisco Art Association
1930-41 Marie Harriman Gallery
1932-48 Whitney Museum of American Art
1943-45, 1948 Durand-Ruel Galleries
1945-49Corcoran Gallery Biennials
1947 Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, CO
1960 Cincinnati Art Museum, OH
1964, 1978 Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, TX
1966 Maynard Walker Gallery, NY
1966 University of Arizona Art Gallery, Tucson
1967-68, 1972, 1977, 1980 Kennedy Galleries, NY, NY
1984 Barridoff Galleries, Portland, ME
1987 Whitney Museum of American Art, NY, NY
1987 Salander O’Reilly Galleries Inc., NY
1989 Maine University Art Museum, ME
Association of American Painters and Sculptors
Boston Art Club
Kit Kat Club
Salons of America
Society of Illustrators
- 1. Adams, Philip Rhys. Walt Kuhn, Painter: His Life and Work. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1978.
- 2. Walt Kuhn 1877-1949. Orono, ME: Maine University Museum of Art, 1989.
- 3. Walt Kuhn: The Entertainers. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1987.
- 4. Walt Kuhn. Portland, ME: Barridoff Galleries, 1984.
- 5. Exhibition of Paintings by Walt Kuhn. New York: Marie Harriman Gallery, 1932.
- 6. Walt Kuhn. New York: Kennedy Galleries, Inc., 1977.
- 7. Bird, Paul. Fifty paintings by Walt Kuhn. New York: Studio Publications, 1940.
VIII. WORKS FOR SALE BY THIS ARTIST