Chico in a Hat, 1948
Chorus Captain, 1935
Dressing Room, 1926
I came upon Walt Kuhn by chance, noticing Dressing Room for the first time a few months ago on one of my infrequent visits to the Brooklyn Museum. I took a photo of the painting while passing through, forgetting to note the artist. Then I stumbled on the magnificent Chorus Captain on a rare visit to the Yale University art gallery. I immediately knew it was the same artist, although I didn't yet know his name and even though the paintings are from different periods and differ stylistically. Just yesterday I finally looked up the signature from the photo I took of the Yale painting, expecting to find some Weimar/Neue Sachlichkeit follower. Much to my surprise Walter Francis Kuhn (1877-1949) was born in Brooklyn. He worked as a sculptor, draftsman and cartoonist in addition to painting, and was an organizer of the landmark Armory show (International Exhibition of Modern Art) of 1913.
In my research I came across the intriguing art inconnu, who says of Kuhn:
There is certainly an air of unease about some of his paintings but I wouldn't describe them as disturbing...there is a lot of humanity in his portraits. This is made all the more remarkable by the fact that unlike most modern portraiture almost all his subjects sit in full costume, often including face masks or makeup, often looking faintly ridiculous.I found Kuhn's stark, psychologically intense portraits vastly appealing and disturbing simultaneously. His circus performers alternately stare out confrontationally from full stage make up, while others wearily recede behind the regalia.
Some other art(ists) to keep in mind, with regard to Kuhn:
German "New Objectivity":
As a young man Kuhn left the US for art training in Europe, studying in Paris and Munich. After a summer's work produced only one painting, Kuhn's notion that he had plenty of time was brusquely dispelled when a teacher said, "For you it is a quarter to twelve."
A hospitalization for a serious stomach ulcer in 1925 compelled him impose a time limit of two years in which he would "find himself in art." He concentrated on his early interest in theatrical and circus performers.
Enormously self-critical, he claimed that he was “forty years old before he painted a really worthwhile picture.” A 1967 article in American Artist revealed that “He ruthlessly destroyed more paintings than he preserved, and he never signed one until he was completely satisfied with it.”
In his last years Kuhn suffered increasing mental turmoil, becoming irrational and moody. When the Ringling Brothers Circus was in town, he found solace in attending night after night. His family committed him to Bellevue in 1948; he died the next year of a perforated ulcer.