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Walt Kuhn: Painter Performer
(continued, p. 4)
Proud "Trude" (1931)
Prior Catalog Page (Koeniger)
Next Catalog Page (Lawson)
Kuhn self-parody (1940)
We Offer "Hedda in Straw Hat"
Terrifying "Sibyl" (1932)
Most critics relegate my work to some sort of “realism.” [But] the term “realism” has always puzzled me. To
most people that means that the picture is more or less a copy of the subject. Insisting on thinking for myself, I
have come to the conclusion that such a conception can only mean work which is not art at all. Why reproduce
a thing which in itself is a pretty fine job of nature? In other words, you cannot “Gild the Lily.” But you can
express the Lily in other terms. There you have the metaphor, without which you cannot have art. If all those
who go to my show see nothing but the subject, then my whole endeavor as an artist is in vain….

This is the process which should take place in the artist’s mind—subject matter comes first, something
attracts him, he must subconsciously feel possibilities in the subject for the purpose of creating a new
thing…The artist in every case takes the subject apart and then builds something completely new…From now
on the clearer, the cleaner, the more powerfully, the more precisely he creates out of this subject matter the
finer result.

The real masterpiece emerges [as]…a product which is dangerously close again to the original subject matter.
Then the work will have that universal quality which will enable the most uncultured eye to enjoy, as well as the
most sophisticated. This desire to produce something of universal quality has been voiced by many of the old
masters—but nothing proves it more than the letters of Cezanne which point clearly and emphatically toward
the same.

One must work "out of nature," not "from" nature.
Kuhn’s sense of danger, repeated here, is the risk of a dead painting versus living art.

Almost 65, Kuhn ran into a stop sign in 1942. He had once again sketched with young Mary A. H. Rumsey
at Lake Buel in the summer, where he painted a head of Harry Payne Whitney II, the first son of Marie
Norton Harriman, by Cornelius Vanderbilt “Sonny” Whitney, which was sold directly to W. Averall
Harriman for $500. Harry came after Mary left, also to study painting with Kuhn, who told Vera: "The
Harriman family seems to use me to give their children the simple decent rules of living." But he added:
"If I should be able to make a good portrait of him [Harry] it will open up all sorts of connections with his
faher's side of the family--Jock, etc." And when Harry wrote in the fall to Kuhn, telling him his student
painting at Deerfield Academy had been praised, Kuhn sent the letter to Marie Norton, whose secretary
wrote back that Marie was very pleased to have it.  But W. Averell Harriman accepted FDR’s wartime
offer of the Ambassadorship to Moscow, and disaster struck when as a consequence, Marie Harriman
shut down her gallery. Kuhn even had to surrender his Union Pacific pass. He painted two self-portraits,
one a clear masterpiece radiating his visual intensity (see page one), and also destroyed more
inventoried paintings than ever before. The signs pointed to the shaping of his artistic legacy, though
the self-portrait was likely sparked by a request from San Francisco's De Young museum for a self
portrait. (Kuhn refused the request but noted he had never tried a self-portrait.) He even taught for
three weeks in Columbus, Ohio, hating every minute of it, but also trying to shape his biography in
conversations with Adams, who coerced him with the lure of increased sales. Fortunately, the war forced
French gallery Durand-Ruel to open in New York, but the gallery was no longer the house that had
brought Impressionism to the U.S. The focus was now on profits earned from sentimental collectors
wanting parlor-pastel Parisian scenes. Still, Kuhn was quick to accept a new offer of representation.

But Kuhn knew what he had finally achieved as a painter was far too powerful for the new Durand-Ruel.
He provided American manager Herbert Elfers with what he called “Patisserie” or “Millinery”—meaning
small, foot square, or less, and much happier, circus heads. (Kuhn always equated size with effort and
favored 40” x 30” for his major canvases.) The knock-offs sold well, and Kuhn recharged his weakening
batteries. In 1947-48, he focused on a final 50-year mini-retrospective of 24 pictures. Typically, he wrote
to "New York Times" publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger at his Fifth Avenue home, reminding him that
Olive Taylor had introduced them in Florida, and “hoping that perhaps the newspaper will feel
constrained to add a couple of ‘sticks’ [as in stick with this] to any possible write-up it may give my
exhibition.” Sulzberger wrote back saying he would be “glad to see what can be done.” And when Aline
Bernstein (then) Louchheim (later) Saarinen praised the show in the "Times," Kuhn wrote back:
“Perfect—All is Forgiven—Walt.” She had been close to him all of his working life, but he had been
thorny of late. And when critic Howard Devree added only luke-warm praise days later, again in the
"Times," Kuhn thanked him but also complained separately to Sulzberger.
But Kuhn just couldn’t stop. He wrote to one curator friend in October 1948: “Am going hunting in
northern Mexico next January for three weeks. Then go up through Arizona and New Mexico. Expect to
stop a while in Roswell, White Oaks, etc. I may work out a fine movie idea on the way, as I have the
openings in Hollywood.” He had just bought a larger water view house south of Ogunquit on Cape
Neddick, where he wrote to Vera he would stage follies: “Cast of 200—satirical ballets—burlesque
melodramas—many clown acts….parade from Portsmouth to Portland….will be delivered at the
professional pace of a Broadway show.” Adams and others take the plan seriously, but Kuhn’s very ill
wife and daughter would have seen this as a bitter joke. He was through, but he wouldn’t give up. He
wanted one more clown to pop out of the overstuffed jalopy. To celebrate what was his last opening, the
Spaeth’s threw a dinner party for 15 at their Park Avenue home on November 8th. Kuhn attended with Lily
Cushing. But when his fantasies turned violent only a few weeks later, she joined Harriman publicist
Mark Hanna in the same dining room along with Kuhn’s career-long friend, art critic Alfred Frankfurter,
editor of "Art News" (whose wife had been painted twice by Kuhn), to recommend that Vera commit Kuhn.
He was shortly admitted, first to Bellevue and a day later to New York Hospital, where he died on July 13,
1949—like Lear’s fool he had gone “to bed at noon.”  
Kuhn painting in Nova Scotia (1909)