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Walt Kuhn


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Painter. Primarily a figure painter, he is known especially for images of performers from the circus and other popular entertainments. He also played an essential role in introducing European modernism into the United States. Born in Brooklyn, William Kuhn worked as a young man as an illustrator and cartoonist. In 1899 he moved from New York to San Francisco, where he changed his first name. Two years later he went to Europe to study, primarily in Munich. After returning to New York in 1903, he again found employment as a commercial artist but also painted impressionist landscapes. With three other progressive artists, he founded the association that planned the Armory Show. Abroad, he and Arthur B. Davies chose most of the European entries for the show. He recorded these experiences in Twenty-five Years After: The Story of the Armory Show (1938). He also brought much advanced art to the United States through his activity as advisor to important collectors, including John Quinn and Lillie P. Bliss. For many years, he summered in Ogunquit, Maine. Following nearly a year of deteriorating health, he died in White Plains, New York, where he had been hospitalized. For more than a decade after the Armory Show, Kuhn worked through a succession of modern styles. Following many years of self-critical labor, his individual style finally emerged only after he returned to Europe in 1925–26 to engage a close study of old master and ancient art. Subsequently, he pursued an individual approach to single-figure compositions featuring strongly modeled sitters against blank backgrounds. An early example of his mature approach, The White Clown (National Gallery, 1929), presaged many dignified, introspective men and women dressed in the costumes of their professional work. Realized with strong colors and bold volumes, they invoke the human condition in their contrast of psychological inwardness with frivolous masquerade. He also painted similarly intense still lifes, such as the luscious little Bread and Knife (Phillips Collection, 1934).

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