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collections > permanent collection > paintings >WALT KUHN
 
Walt Kuhn
(American, 1877-1949)
Acrobat, 1926
Watercolor on paper, 9 3/4” x 6 1/2”
Gift of the Frank and Margaret Sullivan Fund (75.005)

 

The majority of Walt Kuhn’s paintings are figure studies depicting circus performers.  Kuhn admired the discipline and dedication of these oft-maligned people, and in his paintings, he strove to capture their inner dignity.  A perfectionist, Kuhn destroyed any painting that did not meet his own exacting standards; as a result, his surviving works are uniformly excellent.  The Museum’s 1926 watercolor, Acrobat, is a study for a finished oil, and possesses its own bold power.  Inspired by pioneer French modernist Paul Cezanne, Kuhn employs blocky proportions and dark outlines to convey a sense of strength and solidity.  The addition of a delicately scrawled “frame” around the figure is an effective foil, which contributes further to the monumental quality of the work.  Swaths of bright color, a nod to Henri Matisse, suggest the lighthearted and festive air of the circus itself.

 

Kuhn was born in Brooklyn in 1877.  As a young man, he traveled to San Francisco and then to Europe, studying art briefly in Paris and at the Royal Academy of Munich. Back in New York by 1903, he commenced his career by cartooning and illustrating for periodicals.  He came into contact with the progressive Realist group known as “The Eight,” which included fellow newspaper illustrators such as John Sloan.  Kuhn’s abilities as an organizer landed him a prominent role in the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, the organization responsible for staging the Armory Show in 1913.  Kuhn won fame for his circus paintings during the 1920s, and from that time until he stopped working, clowns, chorus girls, and other performers constituted his chief subjects.  His first retrospective, held in 1939, was followed by a decade of debilitating mental and physical illness, which culminated in his death of a perforated ulcer in 1949.