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Mrs. Paul V. Shields, New York.
Private collection, New York.
Private collection, New Jersey.
Sale, Sotheby's, New York, May 21, 2009, lot 71.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
P.R. Adams, Walt Kuhn, Painter: His Life and Work, Columbus, Ohio, 1978, p. 262, no. 326.
Although Walt Kuhn is best known for his depictions of theatrical, vaudeville, and circus performers, his still lifes were a crucial part of his oeuvre. Painted in a vivid, highly plastic style that is seen in his portraits of performers, Rose Basket is one of nine still lifes that Kuhn produced in 1934 and is from a period when Kuhn focused strongly on still life as a vessel for his maturing style and painting philosophies. Kuhn's still lifes, especially those of flowers, alongside portraits of performers became the most significant subjects in the artist's body of work and his unique approach to still life was fresh and modern. Rose Basket is a fantastically bold example from Kuhn's work, painted in his assured, signature style.
Kuhn was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1877 and beginning at an early age, he developed an interest in drawing and theater. At the age of fifteen, Kuhn sold his first drawing to a magazine and in 1893 he decided that he would benefit from formal training and began art classes at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute. In 1899, he made his way to California and settled in San Francisco where he took a job as a cartoonist and illustrator for The Wasp, a weekly satirical magazine. After a year of working for The Wasp, he realized that if he was going to be taken seriously as an artist, he needed to further his studies and expose himself to the Old Masters and contemporary Modernists of Europe. In March of 1901, Kuhn traveled to Paris to study at the Academie Colarossi and later that year he went on to Münich to study at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste to study under Heinrich von Zügel (1850-1941), a member of the Barbizon school. During his two years abroad, he went on sketching trips to the Netherlands, toured the museums of Venice, and exposed himself to the works of the Impressionists and the Post-Impressionists.
In 1903, Kuhn moved back to New York where he studied at the Artists' Sketch Class and began painting landscapes in an Impressionist style. For the next decade, he supported himself as an illustrator and cartoonist for local journals and publications including Life and New York World. Through his commercial illustration work, Kuhn became acquainted with Robert Henri (1865-1929), John Sloan (1871-1951), and other artists in their circle. He worked with Henri and Sloan to organize the Exhibition of Independent Artists in April 1910. The following year Kuhn and a small group of fellow artists founded the Association of American Painters and Sculptors (AAPS), which aimed to promote contemporary artists through non-juried exhibitions. With Arthur B. Davies (1862-1928) as its president, the AAPS organized the International Exhibition of Modern Art, a major show that included representative works from avant-garde artistic movements in Europe. Serving as the Association's secretary, Kuhn, Davies, and Walter Pach (1883-1958) traveled to Europe in 1912 to find the best and most progressive examples of fresh art to introduce to New York audiences. Known as the Armory Show, the exhibition opened in New York on February 17, 1913, and introduced Cubism, Fauvism, Expressionism, and other styles of European Modernism to American audiences. Kuhn continued his work with the AAPS after the Armory Show and also began serving as an art advisor to prominent American collectors, such as John Quinn (1870-1924) and Lillie P. Bliss (1864-1931), a lender to the Armory Show and a founder of the Museum of Modern Art.
Over the next decade, Kuhn experimented with Modern styles including Cubism and Fauvism and tested a variety of mediums. In 1925, following a close call with death caused by a duodenal ulcer, Kuhn shifted his focus to developing a signature style of his own. By 1934 when Kuhn painted the present work, he began to synthesize the observations of the European models he gathered in Paris and Portugal the year prior. Elements of Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890), Maurice de Vlaminck (1876-1958), and Andre Derain (1880-1954) can be seen in Kuhn's still lifes of the 1930s, however, Kuhn also imbues his paintings with a rich discordant palette and textured brushstrokes entirely his own that give his subjects a vibrating sense of life. In his still lifes, as seen in the present work, Kuhn omits any sense of place by choosing a bare, dark background. When composing his still lifes, "Kuhn often asked someone else, usually [his daughter or wife] Vera or Brenda, to arrange his still life objects so that the unintended grouping could surprise him with a new idea. Then he might make a few adjustments while avoiding the danger of unconsciously repeating himself." (P.R. Adams, Walt Kuhn, Painter: His Life and Work, Columbus, Ohio, 1978, pp. 156-7) Exhibiting a rich color palette, vibrant brushstrokes, and alluring arrangement, the present work is a thoroughly modern and striking example by the artist.