Wilhelm Kuhnert was the first exponent of a genre of wildlife painters which continues today with contemporary artists such as David Shepherd, and which is based on a profound understanding of his subject that is drawn from careful study in the field. At a time when most animal painters captured their subjects in captivity, Kuhnert’s dedication to the natural world was a radical departure from artistic convention.
Kuhnert received his artistic education under the tutelage of the animal painter Paul Meyerheim in Berlin, where he learned to master the anatomically correct rendering of animal fur, hair and muscles. His extraordinary talent was noticed early on by his teachers, who encouraged him to dedicate himself fully to the genre of animal painting. Eager to personally experience and capture the exotic, he returned to Africa year after year in the hunt for both game and subjects for his art. A keen and skilled hunter, he was fascinated by the raw and uncompromising dance between prey and predator and by the wild beauty of their surroundings. His great ability was to capture the natural symbiosis between animals and their environment, and the nuances of pose and behaviour that could not be observed in captivity.
Kuhnert was an inveterate record keeper, meticulously describing what he saw in his diary, and in sketchbooks which he filled with thousands of charcoal and pencil animal and landscape studies. Upon returning to Germany, he then completed the works in his studio, drawing upon his experiences and first-hand knowledge gathered from his adventures. The writer and critic J. G. Millais wrote: 'Germany has given us some great artists who, with thorough technical and anatomical knowledge, have yet added to their genius by going afield and studying the various beasts in their own homes. They have surpassed other artists because they have not been content with caged creatures, but have mastered that great essential, local atmosphere, as well.' In the opinion of Millais, 'there is no finer exponent of African mammals than Wilhelm Kuhnert. We who have travelled do not need to be told that his studies from nature are correct. His lions, elephants, zebras and antelopes are so real that we feel we are gazing at them on the plains of East Africa. The landscapes are simple but intense. Sunlight is there, and the tree and grass are just those that grow in the habitat of these species. Kuhnert has, as it were, got inside the very skin of African life, and draws you insensibly with the charmed circle. To the big game hunter the man who loves to observe in preference to the man who only shoots, his views of wildlife are complete because you know he has been through the mill himself, and studies with humility.'
The present work, depicting a lion and lioness, represents one of Kuhnert’s favourite subjects. They are presented as a regal couple of the animal kingdom, their alert heads standing just above the horizon line, but otherwise camouflaged into their surroundings, eyeing an unseen threat or prey.