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Artist: Walt Kuhn (1877-1949)
Hedda with Straw Hat
Oil on Board 12 3/8 x 14 3/8, Signed
Kuhn with artist protege Lily
Cushing 'admiring the zinnias'
at Mary A.H. Rumsey's
summer cottage in Great
Barrington, MA 1940
Ruthie Ester as "Dragoon"
Kuhn painting Bert Lahr in his
studio in 1947 when he starred
in the role of "Skid" in the
comedy "Burlesque" playing
at the Belasco on Broadway
CURATOR'S COMMENT: In the end, Walt Kuhn (1877-1949) lost control of the major undertaking he was
totally and intensely committed to. That sole-focus mission was himself as artist, his painting, and making
people not only appreciate its vision and greatness but also buy it. He was a painter and performer, in
equal measure. Kuhn was obsessed with teaching what his work meant, and he was always his own
dealer. In 1939, he wrote and directed a silent, educational film called, "Walt Kuhn’s Adventures in Art—
Learning to See." Kuhn gave lectures with the film from 1939 to as late as 1947, hoping also to stimulate
sales. And in 1940 he brought out "Fifty Paintings by Walt Kuhn," where each art work carries a brief
comment on its purpose by editor and critic Paul Bird who serves as Kuhn’s mouthpiece. Kuhn  was as
much artist as traveling salesman. But as the curtain fell on that performance, when he had just
completed a successful mini-retrospective in November 1948, too-old friend and painter Angel Rifka
dropped in from MacDougal Street to visit his East 18th Street studio. Kuhn blew up at her, screaming
“in a fit of fury” that she should “get out!”
Similar incidents were reported by other worried friends earlier in the year. And when Rifka later
telephoned with concern, he “repeated angrily not to annoy” him. She wrote back calling him, “a big
bore,” and told him to “see a psychiatrist” instead of a physician. (All quotations not specifically
identified are with thanks from the Kuhn papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.) Rifka
had met Kuhn years earlier at the Art Students League and posed for him in her twenties as “Angel.” You
won’t find any of that out in Philip Rhys Adams groundbreaking but now very dated biography, "Walt
Kuhn Painter: His Life and Work" (1978). Nor can its Catalogue Raisonné be considered authoritative.
Much new information has come to light, which points to its internal errors and confusion. Adam’s
source, Vera Kuhn, was dying of Parkinson’s disease, and Kuhn withheld information from wife and
daughter, whose record of Kuhn's last years, as seen in the Smithsonian archives, is incomplete.

Kuhn maintained what can only be called a bizarre relationship with his family. Vera and Brenda were
kept strictly out of his social life. Brenda's serious health problems were always an issue.They lived
down in Greenwich Village on University place. Kuhn himself more and more for longer and longer lived
in his East 18th Street studio, and he was away sketching for months at a time. The pattern of separation
was laid down early because Vera and baby Brenda could get the attention of servants in Washington,
DC, with her family, while New York meant living on Kuhn’s earnings. If “the girls,” as he called them,
traveled to the family’s summer house in Ogunquit, Maine, Kuhn would suddenly leave for Rutland,
Vermont, or Great Barrington, Massachusetts, or Los Angeles or Florida for weeks at a time, and when
they returned home, he would stay behind in Ogunquit and stretch out the season as long as possible. If
he did take them to Europe (twice)—on both trips he kept his contact with other artists and collectors
private. He was the artist, and completely dedicated to that role with an energy that can only be called
fierce. Wife and daughter were expected to manage the business side of his career: gallery relations, art
shipping, storage, banking, accounting and typing business correspondence were their responsibility.
His consultation with them on his art was less than they believed. But both women were devoted to him,
and Vera was content with the “office,” despite occasional angry letters about being his only true “pal.”
As Angel’s visit suggests, over the years, Kuhn kept on close terms with his models. He was partial to
people from the entertainment world, preferring dancers and acrobats for their muscular tension. His all-
time favorite appears to have been Ruth Johnston, the acrobatic cabaret dancer, whom he painted
repeatedly, for: “Fancy Dress” (1936); “Carnival Girl” (1936); and his most natural nude, “Miss R” (1936).
In 1937, “Lavender Plumes,” and “Plumed Head” followed. She posed for “Girl with Turban” in 1938
(correctly per Vera, or 1937 per Adams). In 1940, she was “Night Club Girl,” and “Cabaret Girl,” but there
is confusion about the later in Adams catalogue (see Nos. 397, 401, 402) since Vera later changed the
title to “Girl with Conical Hat” (not to be confused with “Pierrette” of 1928). As Adams (p. 172) puts it:
“She had a sympathetic understanding of Kuhn’s needs in a model.”  But Kuhn could be excited by
younger unprofessional models that he often found in Ogunquit. In 1927, he went crazy over Ruth Lloyd-
Jones, a teen-age waitress at Clark’s Diner where he ate regularly when in Maine, painting her at least
eight times as “Girl from Maine” (1927, exhibited at the Grand Central Gallery), “Ruth in Rose Dress”
(1927, later destroyed), “Ruth with Green Head Cloth” (1927, shown at Downtown Gallery), “Ruth with
Blue & White Head Cloth” (1927), “Ruth with Red Bandana” (1927, sold), “Ruth with Red Bandana—Large
Eyes” (1927, photographed), “Tan Dress” (1927, photographed, destroyed), “Ruth en face—with Hanging
Hair” (1927, photographed). Lloyd-Jones is also a subject of his nude drawings.
“Ruthie” Ester was invited for Kuhn’s Christmas celebration at the New York studio in December 1944,
and she wrote back from college in January 1945, thanking him, describing her New Year's school dance,
and adding, “You must be working on some new pictures by now. The one of Mr. [Paul] Bird was rather
unique, I thought. He reminds me so much of Leslie Howard (and I like Leslie Howard!!)” (Howard played
Ashley Wilkes in "Gone with the Wind.") As noted, Bird was Kuhn’s spokesperson in "Fifty Paintings by
Walt Kuhn," and Ruthie continues, “I think you ought to do one of Mrs. Bird,”and in fact Vera’s typed 1944
inventory lists a “Portrait of Isabel Bird” (not in Adams). In turn, Kuhn wrote back, “I don’t want you to
forget to see me while you are here…I am getting back into harness again and expect to paint a few good
pictures this spring.” She wrote back, to give him her summer schedule, and added, “The dancing
course is interpretive so if you happen to see a tulip standing in the middle of Broadway, look twice
because I may have forgotten myself…. [This] does give me a chance to express myself. And you know
how I love to do th
Kuhn Self-Portrait 1942
"The White Clown" (1929)
In 1929, Kuhn’s "The White Clown" achieved masterpiece status and was exhibited at the newly
established Museum of Modern Art in New York, bringing intense publicity and sales interest. Kuhn,
who resented Edith Halpert’s tight control of her Downtown Gallery, jumped to a new gallery established
by Marie Norton Harriman, second wife of financier and diplomat W. Averell Harriman, and ex-wife of
Cornelius Vanderbilt “Sonny” Whitney. She shared a life-long close personal and professional liaison
with Kuhn. In 1931, Kuhn traveled with the Harriman’s to Europe, where the three visited major private
collections, acquiring modern art as advised by Kuhn. And Harriman got Kuhn lucrative work in the final
years of the Great Depression, consulting on railroad club car décor and design. (Kuhn is likely to have
given Harriman the idea for the job, knowing that his lifelong artist pal Louis Bouché was designing
interior décor for the Pennsylvania Railroad.) And Kuhn was granted a pass providing free travel on the
Union Pacific, which he used to go to Hollywood and sell Gary Cooper his “Clown with Mandolin.” (Movie
mogul Sam Goldwyn had bought Kuhn’s “Hydrangeas” after seeing it in New York.)
Prior Catalog Page (Koeniger)
Next Catalog Page (Lawson)
Artist Top Auction Price: $1,136,000
Kuhn, who always painted from the model, also developed another source of posers, whom he said less
about to “the girls.” He wasn’t shy about targeting young, bright, art-interested, painter-student wives,
daughters and nieces of the wealthy. “The shrewdest approach for me is via the women,” he wrote to
Vera. So when he went after wealthy Florida collectors Bert and Olive Taylor, he wrote first to the wife:  
“I have been wondering how your painting has been progressing. I’m beginning to think about Florida….
From gossip one hears up here in New York it’s going to be difficult to get accommodations…. I want
the simplest kind of quarters….I’m mostly interested in what you have been painting and am curious to
see whether I have started you on your way.” Of his first “two month’s trip to [the Taylor’s] one of Hobe
Sound’s richest [families],” he wrote to a pal in 1945: “A 35-cent cigar after breakfast, a fifty-cent one
after lunch, and a $1.00 one after dinner! I wore the boss’ pajamas and hobnobbed with all the feminine
pulchritude of the land of The Fountain of Youth. They gave me my own car to drive….Nine miles of
coast with 20 millionaires to the mile. From now on I shall never have to worry about ‘shoes for baby.’”

He had learned from the close friendship he formed with legendary art collector John Quinn at the time
of the Armory Show (1913) just how necessary a wealthy patron could prove. Although Quinn developed
cancer and died in 1924, they were very close for nearly ten years. Quinn took Kuhn hunting and golfing
on his estate; they drank nightly with pal painters in New York at Mouquin’s and at the Kit Kat club.
When Kuhn found that artist hang out too stuffy, Quinn helped him form the Penguin Club in 1916, which
Kuhn ran himself, and whose members included Hopper, Pene du Bois, Joe Stella and Max Weber. A
women’s auxiliary called the Penguinettes joined in an annual comedy ball directed and authored by
showman Kuhn. One of them was the dancer Victoria Levant, whom Kuhn painted at this time as
“Victoria,” an important painting for him. She posed for “Study of a Girl,” and “Woman in Shawl,” which
were bought by Quinn, who had met Levant and was Kuhn’s chief purchaser at the time.
The Harriman connection opened doors for Kuhn, and Marie Harriman allowed him to beat the bushes
for buyers. Kuhn wrote the "Story of the Armory Show" for its 25th anniversary and used the pamphlet
as a calling card thereafter. (The essay is reprinted in "Walt Kuhn," Barridoff / Salander-O’Reilly
Galleries, 1984.) He visited and sold paintings to Josephine and Ernest Kanzler, Paul and Mary “Minna”
Mellon, Hartford heiress and Ogunquit summer painter Betty Hare, Frick relative Helen Sanger, and
Eloise and Otto Spaeth (the industrialist husband was on the Whitney Museum board, where Julianna
Force was happy to exhibit Kuhn’s work). Mary and A. Conger Goodyear and Lizzie (later “Lillie”) P. Bliss,
who together would launch the Museum of Modern Art, were major buyers. Kuhn also received support
from wealthy collector Duncan Phillips, who bought his work for exhibition at the Phillips Collection.

While his gallery connection with Marie Harriman is well known, Kuhn was close with three generations
of Harriman women. He claimed to have met the grandmother, Mary Williamson Averell Harriman (1851-
1932), wife of railroad tycoon E. H. Harriman, at the Armory Show in 1913. She was then a widow and one
of the ten richest women in the country. She purchased Kuhn’s “Green Plums” (1923) for her own
collection. (Per Vera the purchase took place in January 1927 from Grand Central Gallery along with a
second work, “Flowers and Stars.”) And Kuhn was even closer with her daughter, W. Averell Harriman’s
widowed sister, Junior League founder Mary Harriman Rumsey (1881-1934), wife of polo player and
sculptor, Charles C. Rumsey, who died in in a car crash in 1922. (The lovers met while he was doing
design and restoration work at Arden, the Harriman estate at Sands Point, Long Island—to the glory of
the tabloids.) She purchased Kuhn’s “Concert” directly from the artist in 1923 for $1200, and Kuhn
personally repaired the work at her Virginia estate The Plains in 1930. She acquired her favorite, “Apple
Basket” (1933), at its debut exhibition. She served as FDR’s New Deal Consumer Board chief, and when
called to Washington (where she owned a Georgetown mansion) while Kuhn was spending the weekend
at The Plains in October 1934, slipped a note under his door saying, “See you to-morrow or any day you
want to come to Washington. The house is yours at any and all times. Its only treasure is your picture &
you should come to guard that often. Blessings on you. Mary H. R.”
Kuhn Essay, p.1
Kuhn Essay, p.2
Kuhn Essay, p.3
Kuhn Essay, p.4
Another similar 17-year-old model fascinated him at the end of his career. She was Ruth Ester, a high-
schooler about to leave for William Smith College from her home on Ocean Avenue in Brooklyn. Kuhn
wrote a college admissions letter for her, recommending her "fine physical condition." In his 18th St.
studio, Kuhn kept a rack of costumes, mostly made by Vera, for use by women who were not stage and
circus performers. Ruth Ester posed for “Dragoon” (1945, Adams lists two works under this title, Nos.368
and 518) which is now in the Crystal Bridges Museum. Vera says the painting was originally entitled
“Rosenkavalier,” and she adds "The Green Pom-Pom" (1944) and "Show Girl in Armor" (1943 per Vera's
inventory but dated 1944). She also adds: “Fusilier” (listed separately in her 1944 inventory, perhaps
“Cannoneer” in Adams), “Big Black Hat” (other correspondence contradicts Vera’s assertion that Ester
was the model, but several works share this title, and confusion is rampant), and “[Ruth] Resting on
Arms,” (these latter two “were not successful” per Vera). She is also “Girl combing her Hair,” as
distinguished from “Girl combing her Hair –Old” by Vera.