Walt Kuhn (1877-1949)
Walt Kuhn (1877-1949)
Walt Kuhn (1877-1949)
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Walt Kuhn (1877-1949)
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Modern Icons: Property from an Important Private Collection
WALT KUHN (1877-1949)

Chico in a Silk Hat

WALT KUHN (1877-1949)
Chico in a Silk Hat
oil on canvas
40 1⁄2 x 30 in. (102.8 x 76.2 cm.)
Painted in 1948.
Mr. and Mrs. Henry Sears, New York, 1965.
Sotheby's, New York, 30 November 2005, lot 103.
Acquired by the present owner from the above.
P.R. Adams, Walt Kuhn, Painter: His Life and Work, Columbus, Ohio, 1963, pp. 235, 276, no. 530, pl. 152, illustrated.
G. Levin, Twentieth-Century American Painting: The Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, London, England, 1987, p. 116.
Tucson, Arizona, The University of Arizona, University Art Gallery, Painter of Vision: A Retrospective Exhibition of Oils, Watercolors and Drawings by Walt Kuhn, February 6-March 31, 1966, p. 83, no. 115, illustrated.
Fort Worth, Texas, Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Omaha, Nebraska, Joslyn Museum of Art; Wichita, Kansas, Wichita Art Museum; Colorado Springs, Colorado, Colorado Springs Fine Art Center, Walt Kuhn: A Classic Revival, August 6, 1978-April 15, 1979, no. 63.

Brought to you by

Tylee Abbott
Tylee Abbott Vice President, Head of American Art

Lot Essay

One of the founding members of the 1913 Armory Show, Brooklyn-born Walt Kuhn was central to the introduction of European Modernism to America. Having studied at the Académie Colarossi in Paris and the Royal Academy in Munich, modern masters such as Paul Cézanne left lasting impressions on Kuhn’s work. After his return to the United States, Kuhn became a major proponent of American Modernism by forming the Association of American Painters and Sculptors. The Association’s first and only exhibition, the historic Armory Show exposed the American public to progressive new art for the first time.

Kuhn’s striking clown portraits, such as the present work Chico, are recognized as his most important body of work, with examples notably including The White Clown (1929, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.); Clown with a Black Wig (1930, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York); The Blue Clown (1931, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York); Clown with Folded Arms (1944, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia); and Chico in Top Hat (1948, Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, on loan at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid). In the early 1920s, Kuhn worked as a director and designer on Broadway to support his family, and in the 1930s and 40s would frequent Ringling Brothers performances, obtaining a press pass in 1941 to further his access backstage. His intimate relationships behind the scenes translated into his focused canvases.

In his modern exploration of the complexities behind the performer’s façade, Kuhn’s clowns and showgirls find important context in the work of his contemporaries, both in America and abroad. Indeed, Kuhn’s work recalls the harlequin images of Pablo Picasso, whom he met in Paris in the summer of 1925, or the fin-de-siècle dance hall stars of Toulouse-Lautrec. Curator John I.H. Baur reflected on Kuhn’s complex depictions, “There is no mistaking the artist’s intent, his interest in the tragic and human side of his character rather than its traditional glamour, and one is led to the conclusion that Kuhn’s art today springs from the same general current which produced the pallid harlots and dance hall queens of Toulouse-Lautrec over a quarter of a century ago.” (Walt Kuhn, Painter: His Life and Work, Columbus, Ohio, 1978, p. 104) His theater series also resonates with the works of “The Eight,” a group of American artists including William Glackens, Robert Henri, Everett Shinn and John Sloan, who sought to capture scenes of everyday urban life in early twentieth-century New York.

Paintings such as Chico equally anticipate the complex physiological treatments of the human figure by Modern masters like George Condo and Richard Prince. As with these artists’ practice, Kuhn purposefully depicts his subject free of excess detail and in front of a simplified background so as to intensify his focus on the sitter. As Fridolf Johnson writes, "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." ("Walt Kuhn: American Master," American Artist, December 1967, p. 52)

As with these contemporary artists, and epitomized by Chico, Kuhn captures his subject at close-range in germane costume, but strips the façade of his trade away in exchange for the reality of life ‘behind the curtain.’ Duncan Phillips writes, “Kuhn uses the language of design to aid him in suggesting these undercurrents of character beneath the make-up and costume. Far from describing his models, in all their flamboyant or grotesque professional appearances with the exaggerations of subjective fantasy, he imposes upon himself the challenge of confronting only the facts about some very human personalities, conditioned to specialized jobs in burlesque, vaudeville and circus.” (as quoted in Walt Kuhn, Painter: His Life and Work, p. 211) Indeed, in Chico the clown’s furrowed brow underscores the attitude of the man underneath the white face paint, rather than the character he performs to his usual audiences.

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