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Robert Torchia, “Walt Kuhn/The White Clown/1929,” American Paintings, 1900–1945, NGA Online Editions, (accessed June 29, 2022).

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Aug 09, 2018 Version

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Walt Kuhn was known for his depictions of many types of circus entertainers, but he was particularly interested in clowns. The White Clown is arguably Kuhn’s most famous painting, and the work that firmly established his reputation at the age of 51. Part of a long artistic tradition of images of performers, the figure’s angular, geometric, and monumental form recalls ancient Greek sculptures of athletes. Kuhn had met Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881 - 1973) in Paris during the summer of 1925. The White Clown evokes the Spanish artist’s many images of the circus and is stylistically similar to his classicizing period of the early 1920s. Kuhn’s clown paintings have autobiographical implications as well. The artist specified that a later painting—Kansas (1932, Ebsworth Collection)—be posthumously renamed Portrait of the Artist as a Clown. It has also been suggested that the intense facial expression of the 1948 work Chico in a Top Hat (Kennedy Galleries, Inc., New York) portended the artist’s mental breakdown that year.


The White Clown was an instant success when it made its debut at the Museum of Modern Art exhibition Paintings by Nineteen Living Americans in December 1929. Arguably Walt Kuhn’s best-known painting and the work that firmly established his reputation at the age of 51, it was reproduced numerous times during his life.[1] Philip Rhys Adams noted that it was “a symbol intensely personal to Kuhn,” and his “passport to immortality.”[2] When the artist’s friends and patrons W. Averell and Marie Harriman immediately offered to buy the painting for $10,000 the artist refused, saying that it was his “ace in the hole” and that it was “not for sale until I’m gone.” When the Harrimans finally purchased The White Clown for $25,000 from his widow in 1957, the event was a national news item. Life magazine noted the sum was “an unparalleled amount of cash for a contemporary American painting,” and allotted it a full-page color illustration.[3]

In his study of Kuhn, Paul Bird described The White Clown as “peak performance in bulk, weight and substance. Like an animal crouched for the kill, he might instantly charge into his routine. Action strains at the bit. With the simplest colors—virtually black and white—the figure is modeled into a throbbing arabesque, fitted exactly to the canvas. Monumentality in a 30" x 40" area.”[4] The clown’s athletic physique fills the large, monochromatic composition. He leans forward and looks directly at the viewer, resting his elbows on his thighs and clasping his large, powerful hands between his knees. 

Throughout his career Kuhn was noted for his sympathetic, searching representations of circus, vaudeville, burlesque, and nightclub entertainers. Rather than representing glamourous, spectacular circus acts, as John Steuart Curry did in The Flying Codonas (1932, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York), Kuhn instead turned his attention to the rank and file performers, especially clowns. Commenting on Kuhn’s Clown with Black Wig [fig. 1], Bird noted that “clowning is an ancient, legitimate profession with relatively as many master performers, apprentices, and pretenders as any other profession.”[5] In addition to clowning, there was another layer of performance and masquerade at play in The White Clown. Kuhn recorded that the model was in fact an actor named Teddy Bergman (1907–1977), who at that time was engaged at the Provincetown Playhouse and in 1929 also posed for Athlete (Jewett Art Gallery, Wellesley College, MA) and Performer Resting (The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC).[6]

Kuhn drew upon many sources to create The White Clown. His interest in ancient Greek sculpture is reflected in the figure’s angular, geometric, and monumental form. Like the subject of the famous Le Grand Gilles by Antoine Watteau (French, 1684 - 1721) [fig. 2], the melancholy expression of Kuhn’s clown invites the spectator to muse over the inherent contradiction between public performance and private angst. The White Clown invites further comparison with the many images of clowns and circus performers by Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881 - 1973), and the painting is reminiscent of the Spanish artist’s classicizing period of the early 1920s. Kuhn met Picasso while attending the Exposition Trinationale at Durand-Ruel Galleries in Paris during the summer of 1925, just four years before he executed this work.

Kuhn continued to return to the clown theme for the rest of his career, perhaps most successfully with The Blue Clown [fig. 3]. He identified with his subjects, and his many images of clowns may have autobiographical implications. He specified that Kansas (1932, Ebsworth Collection) be posthumously renamed Portrait of the Artist as a Clown.[7] It has also been suggested that the intense, manic facial expression of Chico in a Top Hat (1948, Kennedy Galleries, Inc., New York) was a portent of his mental breakdown that year.[8] However, Kuhn would never again paint a psychological portrait so imposing, poignant, and sublimely balanced between physical strength and dignified pathos as The White Clown.

Robert Torchia

August 17, 2018


lower center: Walt Kuhn / 1929


The artist [1877-1949]; his estate; (Maynard Walker Gallery, New York); purchased 27 May 1957 by W. Averell [1891-1986] and Marie N. [1903-1970] Harriman, New York;[1] W. Averell Harriman Foundation, New York; gift 1972 to NGA.

Exhibition History
Paintings by Nineteen Living Americans, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1929-1930, no. 50 (two catalogues, one with repro.).
Exhibition of Paintings by Walt Kuhn, Marie Harriman Gallery, New York, 1930, no. 1, repro.
Paintings by Contemporary American Artists, Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts, 1931, no. 29.
Paintings by Walt Kuhn, City Art Museum, St. Louis, 1933, no catalogue.
Eleven Contemporary American Painters, William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art and Atkins Museum of Fine Arts [now The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art], Kansas City, Missouri, 1934, no catalogue.
Walt Kuhn, Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts, Ohio, April 1935, no catalogue.
Walt Kuhn Paintings, Dayton Art Institute, Ohio, May 1935, no catalogue.
Clowns, travelling exhibition organized by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 14 venues, 1953-1955, no catalogue.
Walt Kuhn, 1880-1949, Albany Institute of History and Art, 1958, no. 4, repro. on cover.
American Painting and Sculpture [American National Exhibition], Sokolinski Park, Moscow, July-September 1959, no. 5, repro.
Paintings and Sculpture from the American National Exhibition in Moscow, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, October-November 1959, unnumbered catalogue.
Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture Collected by Yale Alumni: An Exhibition, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut, May-June 1960, no. 135, repro.
Walt Kuhn 1877-1949: A Memorial Exhibition, Cincinnati Art Museum, October-November 1960, no. 40, color repro.
Exhibition of the Marie and Averell Harriman Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1961, unnumbered catalogue, repro. 45.
125 Years of New York Painting and Sculpture, New York State Fair Exposition, Syracuse, August-September 1966 [according to donor collection records].
Art of the United States: 1670-1966, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, September-November 1966, no. 164.
Painter of Vision: A Retrospective Exhibition of Oils, Watercolors and Drawings by Walt Kuhn, 1877-1949, The University of Arizona Art Gallery, Tucson, February-March 1966: no. 53, repro.
Seven Decades 1895-1965: Crosscurrents in Modern Art, Public Education Association, New York, April-May 1966, no. 155, repro.
Walt Kuhn 1877-1949, Kennedy Galleries, Inc., New York, 1967, unnumbered, frontispiece.
Spring Exhibition, National Art Museum of Sport, Madison Square Garden Center, Gallery of Art, New York, 1969 [according to donor collection records].
Selected American Paintings from the National Gallery of Art, University Center Gallery, University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, 1974, no catalogue.
Walt Kuhn: A Classic Revival, Amon Carter Museum of Western Art, Fort Worth; Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha; Wichita Art Museum; Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, 1978-1979, no. 10, repro.
La Pintura de Los Estados Unidos de Museos de la Ciudad de Washington, Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City, 1980-1981, no. 54, color repro.
Center Ring: The Artist, Two Centuries of Circus Art, Milwaukee Art Museum; Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio; New York State Museum, Albany; The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1981-1982, no. 55, repro.
Walt Kuhn: American Master, The Museum of Art of Ogunquit, Maine, 1992, no. D-31, repro.
Extended loan for use by Ambassador Pamela Harriman, U.S. Embassy residence, Paris, France, 1993-1997.
Extended loan for use by Ambassador Felix Rohatyn, U.S. Embassy residence, Paris, 1997-1998.
Images from the World Between: The Circus in Twentieth-Century American Art, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford; The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota; Austin Museum of Art, 2001-2002, fig. 31.
Technical Summary

The plain-weave, loosely woven, highly textured support is unlined. It has been removed from a previous stretcher and remounted. The current stretcher includes wood shims on both the bottom and right sides, but it is not clear whether these were added to enlarge the original stretcher or a later one. The tacking margins are intact, and a selvage edge is present on the left margin. The creamy white ground was toned with a dark brown, transparent imprimatura; an additional layer of more opaque brown imprimatura blocks out the background. The artist first sketched out the composition with diluted paint in dark earth tones and then applied paint with a pastelike consistency in a range of thicknesses. Shadows were indicated in the initial sketch as hard-edged forms that were later softened by the wet-into-wet application of white paint.[1] The broad areas of highlights were thickly painted with vigorous wet-into-wet brushwork to emphasize the volume of the sitter’s body. Facial details were outlined with a small pointed brush and fluid dark paint. The painting is in excellent condition. The surface is coated with a very thin layer of varnish, on top of which a thin layer of grime has accumulated. Old, discolored varnish residues from a past cleaning remain in the low points of the thickly painted white areas.

Kootz, Samuel. Modern American Painters. New York, 1930: pl. 31.
Collins, M. Rose, and Olive L. Riley. Art Appreciation. New York, 1930: 126, no. 150.
Cheney, Sheldon. A Primer of Modern Art. 7th ed. revised and enlarged. New York, 1932: 236.
Watson, Forbes. American Painting Today. Washington, 1939: 87.
Bird, Paul. Fifty Paintings by Walt Kuhn. New York, 1940: 8, repro.
Adams, Philip Rhys. Walt Kuhn, Painter: His Life and Work. Columbus, OH, 1978: 117-119, 255, no. 249, repro.
American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1980: 191, repro.
Williams, William James. A Heritage of American Paintings from the National Gallery of Art. New York, 1981: 225, repro. 228.
Brown, Milton W. One Hundred Masterpieces of American Painting from Public Collections in Washington, D.C. Washington, D.C., 1983: 124-125, color repro.
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 574, no. 877, color repro.
American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 222, repro.
Walt Kuhn, American Master. Exh. cat. The Museum of Art of Ogunquit, Ogunquit, Maine, 1992: 30, 35, no. D31, repro. 30.
Yeide, Nancy H. "The Marie Harriman Gallery." Archives of American Art Journal 39, nos. 1-2 (1999): 2-11, repro.
Gustafson, Donna. Images from the World Between: The Circus in Twentieth-Century Art. Exh. cat. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford; John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota; Austin Museum of Art, Cambridge, MA, 2001-2002. Cambridge, MA, 2001: 29, repro., 37, fig. 31.
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