Theme/Style – Figurative
art, portraits, still lifes, acrobatic and circus images, cartoons
Media – Oils, watercolors,
gouache, chalk, crayon, ink, graphic arts
Artistic Focus – In
a lifelong association with the theatrical world, Walt Kuhn is best known
for his portrayals of circus people, but for the viewer of these paintings
their context is immediately transcended by the intense, unique, and powerful
presence of each of the human beings behind the makeup and costumes. Kuhn’s
still lifes as well as his portraits reveal, above all, a painter of great
vision, whose stunning use of color and form reflected influences of both
Cubism and German Expressionism. Walt Kuhn was an active participant in
the movement to push the artistic boundaries of his day and blaze the
trail for Modernism.
Career Highlights –
• Born in Brooklyn in 1877, the son of Bavarian
immigrants, Walt Kuhn made his first trip west in 1899, selling cartoons
to a San Francisco newspaper called The Wasp.
• From 1901 to 1903 Kuhn studied at the Royal Academy in Munich and in
Paris at Académie Colarossi. Like Paul Cézanne, one of many
artists that inspired him, Kuhn routinely would destroy many of his canvases,
saving only about a dozen each year.
• On his return from Europe in 1904, Kuhn continued as a cartoonist,
until in 1910 he turned his talents toward painting, gaining his first
one-man exhibition that same year.
• Associated with "The Eight," especially Arthur B. Davies,
Kuhn played a major role in the formation of the American Association
of Painters and Sculptors, who in turn organized the 1913 Armory Show
- the sensational exhibition that introduced Modernist European art to
• An active member of the New York artists’ clubs known as the Kit Kat
Club and the Penguin Club, Kuhn expanded a few sketches he had written
for Penguin Balls into full-blown vaudeville productions in the 1920s,
and this fascination with show business continued throughout his life.
• As Kuhn achieved greater recognition for his artwork in the 1920s and
1930s, he promoted other painters whose work he admired, including Otis
Oldfield. The two artists became good friends, and Kuhn’s influence can
be seen in Oldfield’s later work.
• Walt Kuhn exhibited at the Beaux Arts Gallery in San Francisco in 1928
and at the San Francisco Art Association in 1930. On his trips to the
City Kuhn visited Oldfield in his Telegraph Hill studio, and the Oldfield
works Kuhn took back east with him would result in three Oldfield exhibitions
at the Montross Gallery in New York City, as well as a show at the Albert
Roullier Galleries in Chicago.
• In 1929, Walt Kuhn moved into the 18th Street studio in New York City
that he would keep until the end of his life. Costumes hanging on racks,
mostly made by his wife Vera, were used by his models, many of whom were
stage and circus performers.
• From 1936 to 1943 Kuhn was commissioned by the Union Pacific Railroad
to design posters, brochures, and club cars.
• During business trips for the railroad, Kuhn visited not only his close
friend Otis Oldfield, but also Ralph Stackpole, Rinaldo Cuneo, Edward
Weston, and critic Arthur Millier.
• Kuhn’s work is in the collections of numerous museums, including the
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and in
New York at the Metropolitan Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and the
• One year before his death, Walt Kuhn suffered a mental breakdown and
was institutionalized. He passed away in White Plains, New York in 1949.
Additional biographical material and full bibliographic
references are available upon request.
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