Walt Kuhn (1877–1943) was born in Brooklyn, New York, the only one of eight brothers to survive childhood. In 1899, Kuhn began a leisurely trip West, eventually finding a job drawing cartoons for a San Francisco newspaper. Several years later, realizing the need for more training, Kuhn left for Europe to study in Paris and Munich.
“Boldly outlined, brusquely modeled, intensely expressive, and frozen in limelight against dark backgrounds, Kuhn’s portraits are unforgettable, disturbing paintings. Most present a frontal gaze that is at once hypnotic and that were considered startling in their day. Just as Rembrandt and van Gogh allow the viewer to pierce the facades of their sitters’ faces to look deeper into their beings, so Kuhn accomplishes the same thing, but in an almost eerie fashion.”1
Kuhn said he was forty years old before he painted a really worthwhile picture. In fact, he was over fifty when his long, frustrating search for a resolution to the problems confronting him as a painter was finally reached with completion of White Clown – a painting that was both his masterwork and an intensely personal symbol. He rarely exhibited the work after its debut at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, and would not allow it to be purchased during his lifetime.
In the next two decades of productive maturity Kuhn continued to paint show people, still lifes and landscapes. Though he wrote to a friend, “I have more or less arrived at the point where I can make my brushes carry out my instructions,” he continued to be highly self-critical. Fridolph Johnson wrote in a 1967 article in American Artist, “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 began to suffer increasing mental turmoil, finally becoming irrational and stormy. Concerned friends convinced his family to commit him to Bellevue Hospital in New York in late fall of 1948 and he died in a White Plains hospital the following summer.
1 Fridolf Johnson, “Walt Kuhn: American Master,” American Artist (December 1967): 52.