Walt Kuhn bigraphy, stories - American painter

Walt Kuhn : biography

October 27, 1877 - July 13, 1949

Walt Kuhn (October 27, 1877 – July 13, 1949) was an American painter and an organizer of the famous Armory Show of 1913, which was America's first large-scale introduction to European Modernism.


Walt Kuhn is best remembered today for his key role in planning the Armory Show. Ironically, a man who was in the forefront of the modern movement and was seen as an advocate of adventurous new art in 1913 came to be labelled, because of his on-going commitment to representation, a conservative artist by future generations of art historians.A critical but not unsympathetic account of Kuhn's art and its changes over the years can be found in Milton Brown, pp. 141-144. Brown writes: "Kuhn's Expressionism is conservative, but it has emotional depth." Nevertheless, he holds a place in American art history as a skilled cartoonist, draughtsman, printmaker, sculptor and painter. Although he destroyed many of his early paintings, his works that remain today are powerful and are a part of most major American art collections.

His portraits of circus and vaudeville entertainers are some of the most memorable, confidently painted works of twentieth-century American art. They are reminiscent of commedia dell'arte actor portraits done by the French masters centuries earlier. The Tragic Comedians ((1916) in the collection of the Hirshhorn Museum and The White Clown (1929) in the collection of the National Gallery of Art are intense, arresting images and are among his most respected paintings.


Kuhn was born in New York City in 1877. Growing up near the Brooklyn docks in a working-class family, he was exposed to a range of rough, colorful waterfront experiences in his youth and, though he loved to draw, nothing in his background suggested a future career in art. Kuhn's first jobs were as a proprietor of a bicycle repair shop and as a professional bike racer. At fifteen, though, Walter Kuhn sold his first drawings to a magazine and began to sign his name “Walt.” In 1893, deciding that he would benefit from some formal training, he enrolled in art classes at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute.Biographical information for this entry is taken from Philip Rhys Adams.

In 1899, Kuhn set out for California with sixty dollars in his pocket. Upon his arrival in San Francisco, he became an illustrator for WASP Magazine. It was at this time that he decided, if wanted to grow and eventually make a living as an artist, he should expose himself to the Old Masters and the modern artists of Europe. In 1901, at the age of twenty-four, Kuhn left for Paris. There he studied briefly art at the Académie Colarossi before leaving to the Royal Academy in Munich. Once in the capital of Bavaria, he studied under Heinrich von Zugel (1850–1941), a member of the Barbizon School. He went on sketching trips in the Netherlands and toured the museums of Venice. During his two-year stay abroad, Kuhn also saw for the first time the work of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists.Adams, pp. 14-15.

In 1903, he returned to New York and was employed as an illustrator for local journals. In 1905, he held his first exhibition at the Salmagundi Club, establishing himself as both a cartoonist and a serious painter. In this same year, he completed his first illustrations for Life magazine.

When the New York School of Art moved to Fort Lee, New Jersey in the summer of 1908, Kuhn joined the faculty. However, he disliked his experience with the school, and at the end of the school year, he returned to New York. There, he married Vera Spier. Soon after, a daughter, Brenda Kuhn, was born. An important friendship was formed at this time with artist Arthur Bowen Davies, who would also play a significant role in American art history.Adams, p. 30. The relationship between Kuhn and Davies is chronicled in Bennard B. Perlman, The Lives, Loves, and Art of Arthur B. Davies (Albany: State University Press of New York, 1998).

In 1909, Kuhn had his first solo exhibition in New York. In the following years, he took part in founding the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, the organization ultimately responsible for the Armory Show. Kuhn acted as the executive secretary and was delegated as one of the men to find European artists to participate. He, Davies, and artist Walter Pach made a whirlwind tour of Europe in 1912 to find the best and most audacious examples of new art to introduce to New York audiences. The Armory Show of 1913, which displayed both European and American modernist art, resulted in both an historic controversy and a long-range triumph. Smart and sensational publicity, combined with strategic word-of-mouth, resulted in attendance figures of over 200,000 and over $44,000 in sales, far exceeding anyone's expectations for the venture.McShea, Megan, . Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. After its New York venue, the Armory Show toured, receiving widespread attention, in Chicago and Boston. "Kuhn had a talent for promotion," art critic Robert Hughes has noted.Robert Hughes, American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America (New York: Knopf, 1997), p. 354. This unprecedented exhibition had demonstrated that Americans might be receptive to modern art and that there was a large potential market for it; Kuhn played a major role in a transformative cultural event.Kuhn's essay "The History of the Armory Show" is reprinted in Arts Magazine (Summer 1984), pp. 138-141. The definitive account of the Armory Show remains art historian Milton Brown's study of the show's inception, organization, and reception.

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