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 Walt Francis Kuhn  (1877 - 1949)

About: Walt Francis Kuhn


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Lived/Active: New York/California      Known for: clown figure and portrait painting, cartoons, some sculptural work

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BIOGRAPHY for Walt Kuhn
1877 (Brooklyn, New York)
1949 (White Plains, New York)

New York/California

Often Known For
clown figure and portrait painting, cartoons, some sculptural work

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New York Armory Show of 1913
San Francisco Panama-Pacific Exhibition 1915
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
A painter and major organizer of the Armory Show, Walt Kuhn is perhaps best known for his circus figure-clown depictions.  They were unique in that he treated his subjects as human beings conditioned to specialized jobs.  He also painted still lifes and some landscapes.  He was inspired and influenced by many artists, most notably Paul Cezanne, and like Cezanne, he destroyed many of his canvases, saving only about a dozen paintings a year.

He was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1877 (some older sources quote 1880 as his year of birth) with the name William, but in 1900 first used the name "Walt" when illustrating magazines in San Francisco.  He studied at the Royal Academy in Munich from 1901 to 1903, and returned to New York where he worked as a cartoonist and magazine illustrator.

He was associated with "The Eight", New York modernist painters, and with Arthur B. Davies, was a the key figure in forming the American Association of painters and Sculptors that organized the Armory Show of 1913 that introduced modernist European art to America.  Kuhn was executive secretary of the Association and traveled abroad to select entries for the Armory Show.

In 1941, he was granted a press pass to all of the Madison Square Garden performances of the Ringling Brothers Circus, which reinforced his focus on that subject matter.

He also had a major interest in the American West, and between 1918 and 1920 did 29 paintings in a series he called Imaginary History of the West, whose source material was primarily books.  In 1936 and 1937, he was commissioned by the Union Pacific Railroad to design the interior of two club cars, The Frontier Shack and Little Nuggett.

Matthew Baigell, Dictionary of American Art
David Michael Zellman, 300 Years of American Art
Peggy and Harold Samuels, The Illustrated Biographical Dictionary of Artists of the American West

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born in Brooklyn, NY.  Kuhn began his career in 1898 as a cartoonist for a San Francisco newspaper.  From 1901-03 he studied in Munich and in Paris at Académie Colarossi.  By 1910 he was a successful artist and in 1913 was an organizer of the Armory Show.  His painting forte was clowns and circus performers.  One year before his death, he suffered a mental breakdown and was institutionalized.  He died in New York on July 13, 1949. 

Exh:  Beaux Arts Gallery (SF), 1928; SFAA, 1930.  In:  Brooklyn Museum; Cincinnati Museum; Detroit Inst. of Arts; LACMA; MM; AIC; Boston Museum; MOMA; Whitney Museum (NYC).
Edan Hughes, "Artists in California, 1786-1940"
AAA 1907-08; WWAA 1936-47; NY Times, 7-14-1949 (obit).
Nearly 20,000 biographies can be found in Artists in California 1786-1940 by Edan Hughes and is available for sale ($150). For a full book description and order information please click here.

Biography from Chisholm Gallery:
Philip Rhys Adams wrote: "There is very little Impressionism or Cubism in 'Polo Game' and quite a bit of Raoul Dufy.  There were two oils by Dufy in the Armory Show, both dating from his best "fauve" period of 1909, and Walt Kuhn may have seen many more in Paris.  With its horizontal bands and frieze of fluttering flags instead of a sunrise in the background .... The horses and riders are boldly, clearly drawn, the audience a Prendergast tapestry of color with a few sharply contoured parasols as accents.  It is both animated and decorative."

"Only two paintings can be confidently assigned to 1914, and one of them, Polo Game, is Kuhn's first fully post impressionist arrival.  The first record of its exhibition in New York, though it might well have hung along with works by Davies and Jules Pascin at the Macbeth Gallery in the spring of 1916, is the Maynard Walker Gallery showing of "Early Works by Walt Kuhn" in April and May of 1966.  John Canaday, in The New York Times , called the exhibition 'a careful selection of early works by this American painter who died in 1949, drawing from his estate.

Kuhn often had trouble deciding just which of several artists he most admired, and his various decisions en route are reflected in some of these pictures.  But he was always a strong painter never afraid to declare his loyalties. Filled with collector's items, an exhibition of Kuhn's polo art is also something of a documentation of American painting during its transition from provincialism to internationalism under the impact of the Armory Show.'

John Gruen, in The Herald Tribune, mentioned Polo Game specifically:  'There are fascinating stylistic struggles to be observed in such works as 'Tea! (1923) in which the artist's wife with a lady friend [Brenda] are painted in a mixture of Cubism and German Expressionism, or the 1914 'Polo Game' which combines pure Impressionism with Post-Impressionism.'

Biography from Newman Galleries:
Walt Kuhn was born in 1877 in New York City.  He began his artistic career as a cartoonist for Life, Judge, and Puck.  In 1910, he began painting.  He was educated at the Academy Colarossi in Paris, and the Munich Academy.  He also studied in Holland, Italy, and Spain.  When he returned, Kuhn taught at the Art Students’ League as well as the New York School of Art.

Kuhn exhibited at the Harriman Gallery from 1930 to 1941; the Durand-Ruel Gallery from 1943 to 1945; and he had a retrospective exhibition in 1960 at the Cincinnati Art Museum.  His works were also shown at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia in 1921.

Kuhn’s work is in many private and public collections, including the Dublin Museum in Ireland; the Museum of Modern Art in New York; the Addison Gallery of American Art; the San Francisco Museum of Fine Arts; the Art Institute of Chicago; and the art museums of Denver, Columbus, Los Angeles, Wichita, and Detroit.

As well as being an artist and cartoonist, Kuhn wrote The Story of the Armory Show in 1938, and in 1939, he wrote and produced a motion picture entitled Walt Kuhn’s Adventures in Art.  In 1913 he and A.B. Davies organized the landmark Armory Show in New York City.

Walt Kuhn died in New York City in 1949.

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