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Walt Kuhn


Gallery Database:


Walt Kuhn (1877-1949). "Hedda in a Straw Hat,"

oil on board, 12 3/8 x 14 3/8, signed.


Curator's Comment: 


"The White Clown" (1929)

Kuhn Self-Portrait 1942

Ruthie Ester as "Dragoon" (1945)


Kuhn  was as much brilliant artist as traveling salesman. He was totally and intensely committed to his painting, and to making people not only appreciate its vision and greatness but also buy it. He was a painter and performer, in equal measure. He went so far as to direct an 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 always to stimulate sales. In 1940 he brought out "Fifty Paintings by Walt Kuhn," where each painting carries a brief comment on its purpose by editor and critic Paul Bird who serves as Kuhn’s mouthpiece. Kuhn maintained what can only be called a bizarre relationship with his family. Wife Vera and daughter Brenda were kept strictly out of his art world social life. The two women 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. 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, and Vera was content with the “office,” despite occasional angry letters about being his only true “pal." (All quotations not specifically identified are from the Kuhn papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Philip Rhys Adam's biography and Catalogue Raisonee are no longer authoritative as I indicate.)

Kuhn kept on closer terms with his female models. First there were the three “Ruthies.”  In 1927, he went crazy over Ruth Lloyd-Jones, a waitress at the diner he ate at when in Ogunquit, painting her at least eight times, as  “Girl from Maine” (1927, exhibited at the Grand Central Gallery), “Ruth in Rose Dress” (1927, later destroyed), and “Ruth with Green Head Cloth” (1927, shown at Downtown Gallery).  Next was Ruth Johnston, the acrobatic cabaret dancer, who posed for his important early works. She was “Fancy Dress” (1936); “Carnival Girl” (1936); and his most natural nude, “Miss R” (1936). In 1937, “Lavender Plumes,” and “Plumed Head” followed. As Adams (p. 172) puts it: “She had a sympathetic understanding of Kuhn’s needs in a model.” His final Ruthie was another 17-year-old model, Ruth Ester, a high-schooler about to leave for college from her home 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. Using these, Ruth Ester posed for his most important later works, including “Dragoon” (1945), which is now in the Crystal Bridges Museum. Vera says the painting was originally entitled “Rosenkavalier,” and she adds "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). “Ruthie” Ester was invited to Kuhn’s Christmas celebration at the New York studio in December 1944, and she wrote back to give him her summer schedule, adding, “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 that—Ruthie​"

Kuhn, who always painted from the model, also developed another expansive source of female posers, whom he said less about to “the girls.” He wasn’t shy about targeting young, bright, art-interested, painter-student wives, daughters, nieces and friends of wealthy Florida collectors. “The shrewdest approach for me is via the women,” he wrote to Vera. Going after 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: “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,'" using the crap shooter cry. He had learned from the close relationship he formed much earlier with legendary art collector John Quinn at the time of the Armory Show (1913). Kuhn knew just how necessary a wealthy patron could prove.

Then came the Harriman's, five women named Mary. 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. Kuhn 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 husband and wife visited major private collections, acquiring modern art as advised by Kuhn. 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 richest women in the country. She purchased Kuhn’s “Green Plums” (1923) for her own collection. 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. 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.” The blessings were probably owing to Kuhn for devoting even more attention to her father-less daughter, Mary Averell. Young Mary’s grandmother passed in the same year. Worse, her mother died in December 1934, after a fall from a horse, leaving Mary a very, very wealthy orphan at age 21.  And tragedy continued when her younger brother Bronson died while flying a plane in Mexico in 1939. Mary became an extremely close friend of Kuhn, as her correspondence reveals. She learned painting at his hands, as he later told Vera: “I certainly have been finding the way to her heart. She’s actually painting again and likes it.” Mary regularly purchased Kuhn’s work, including, “Red Roses” (1934) and “Red Roses” (1935) and “Orange Roses” (1937 not 1938 in Adams). Mary commissioned Kuhn to paint a portrait of her gal pal and later sister-in-law, Mary Maloney Rumsey (1935 not 1936 as in Adams) which she also displayed.  And Mary Maloney later purchased works directly as well (per Vera). 

​But if anyone really knew Kuhn, it was his socialite painter protégé Lily Cushing (1909-1969). She was the third child of Bell heiress Ethel Cochrane and artist Howard Gardiner Cushing. She studied painting in Paris from 1926-1927 and became Kuhn’s dedicated student in 1928. As he explained to Vera: “Lily insists that she go off sketching for a week or so with me.” They painted together and toured galleries together. When the second of her three husbands, William Temple Emmet, Jr., rented a farm in Connecticut in 1938—Kuhn visited and stayed. When Lily and her girlfriend, the illustrator Daphne Hodgson, went off to Dorset, Vermont, Kuhn joined their painting expedition. Kuhn painted Lily Cushing at least four times. In 1942, he showed her en face above the neckline of a deep green blouse—this portrait Vera’s records always refer to as “Lily Cushing.” There is also what he called in a last (1/2/49) inventory, “Lily Emmet in Big Hat,” which Adams (No. 429) entitles “Lily with Feathered Hat” (1942—1943 correctly per Vera). But in the same inventory we also find “Lily Emmett in Black Lace,” which Adams fails to catalog even though it was known and shown in Kuhn’s lifetime and still exists. Kuhn exhibited these works, but he heavily marked them as  “NFS,” meaning “Not for Sale,” in  exhibition catalogues. Lily acquired Kuhn works herself, and got her friends to do the same. A number of sales catalogues were annotated by Vera as “sold to a friend of Lily Cushing Emmet,” as was the case with the clown study “Sylvester.”


Lily Cushing

by Horst


Lily Cushing

by Kuhn


Lily & Model

Zita, by Kuhn


Lily in hat & Kuhn

at Mary's studio

Mary decided to paint at a summer cottage by the Berkshire’s Lake Buel near Great Barrington, MA, and Kuhn visited as early as 1939 (correcting Adams). The next summer Kuhn rented a nearby cottage called Tenora. There Mary paints side-by-side with him, summer after summer, but as visitors multiply the circumstances turn hilarious. Kuhn was expecting both “Daphne and a friend Betty,” but then Lily Cushing decides to come for a visit, with her girlfriend and model Zita. And Mary tells him she wants to stay over to learn how to wash dishes and cook because she doesn’t want “to be bamboozled by her servants.”  Earlier Lily had been to Mary's cottage with Kuhn to admire her zinnias, wearing the very same straw hat that Kuhn would later use for "Hedda with a Straw Hat" (see photo above right). Sixty-plus Kuhn ends up with five very wealthy, young women as houseguests, none of whom can cook. To keep order, he finally threatens them with not making breakfast for the group. But Kuhn tells Vera, “I think one of the reasons Mary stayed on was the chance to see the grand vamp Lily in action along with Zita the Oriental-eyed Pollock!”  Kuhn adds, “This Zita girl is a real peasant…last night she sang wild Polish songs with me going along on Diamond Lil [fiddle drawing inserted]—she is a homely, boney dark Polish Hungarian Czech mixture. “The girls certainly had a field day!” Kuhn wrote to Vera, and they left behind a present “four bottles of A-1 liquor, and a set of bedsheets…I can’t make out one other item but they look like Lily’s pants, the lacy ones, in good repair and unused. I may put them up as a flag over the lake—The Tenora School of Cooking for Young Ladies.”  Lily sends him a thank you telling him to come for a dinner out in New York, adding, “You may think I didn’t paint much while there—it seems to me I learned immensely."

Kuhn was attracted by faces demonstrating ethnic admixture. It was no wonder that he labeled Zita an "Oriental Pollock," a probable reference to Tatar lineage. His first important oil nude, “Miss A.” of 1931, posed the model Ailes Gilmore, a Martha Graham dancer.  Vera told him the rumor that she was the child of “an Irish woman named [Leonie] Gilmore” and “Yone Noguchi, the Japanese poet.” Kuhn’s fixation with such ethnic contrast was lifelong, much later he describes Robert Laurent Ogunquit summer student Leona Reiser, as having "a Jewish father and Yankee mother.  [Adding] She’s been plenty kicked around and knows the honky-tonk life which I used so much for subjects.” Lily's model Zita fascinated him, and he told Vera that "Lily had showed up [in Great Barrington] with all her pictures.... One of them is really first class--Zita was the model [perhaps Cushing's Long Hair]." No wonder she became Kuhn’s Hedda in at least two paintings. His attraction to Zita’s Polish/Asian face led Kuhn himself to paint her three-quarter length (24” x 20”) as “Hedda” (1943), where she wears a green performer’s bodice. Thanks again to Robert Laurent, who was regularly on the art faculty of the Univ. of Indiana, the painting was exhibited in one of an annual series of group shows of Contemporary American Artists at the University’s John Heron Museum, and listed as No. 33—Walt Kuhn—“Hedda” in the exhibition catalogue. Wilbur Peat, the Museum Director wrote to Kuhn on Feb. 2, 1944, requesting a painting for the Exhibition, and Kuhn replied via air mail special delivery on the 14th: "I shall be glad to lend you a painting for your coming exhibition. The title is "Hedda." (The painting resurfaced as “Hedda in Green Bodice” in December 2003, when it was sold at Christie’s for $47,800.)


"Ms. A"


from "Hedda in Green"


Zita from Kuhn letter


"Hedda in Straw Hat"

.“Hedda with Straw Hat” (1943) was never exhibited. Clearly Zita is the model, wearing a hat seen on Lily. Kuhn is likely to have gifted it to the model, or to Lily Cushing. The change of name to "Hedda" is a reference to Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, which Kuhn knew deeply and wrote to daughter Brenda telling her to read it--at this very time. Tight-fisted Kuhn even paid for a typescript of H.L. Mencken's introduction to the Everyman edition of Ibsen. Mencken begins by likening Ibsen and Cezanne, and Kuhn told Brenda the likeness included himself as well. Art critic John Baur points to Kuhn’s “powerful emotional treatment of the eyes, extraordinarily large and dark, which stare from the painted mask of the face. It is these which carry the romantic stress, but the [facial] colors are almost as important, for they suggest the colors of decay, of tawdriness ….Kuhn’s art today springs from the same general current which produced the pallid harlots and dance hall queens of Toulouse Lautrec” (Adams, p. 104).  His success is evident, but Kuhn tried to go on forever. He wanted one more clown to pop out of the overstuffed jalopy in the circus ring. To celebrate what was his last opening, wealthy friends threw a private Park Avenue dinner party for 15 in November 1948. Kuhn attended with Lily Cushing. But only a few weeks later, when his fantasies turned violent, Lily joined Harriman publicist Mark Hanna in the same dining room along with Kuhn’s career-long friend, art critic Alfred Frankfurter (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.”   

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