Portraits and Walt Kuhn’s Plumes

(Left) Walt Kuhn, Plumes, oil on canvas, 40 x 30 in. Acquired 1932. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. (Right) Marion "Duke" Green, Untitled, 2014. Watercolor and colored pencil on paper.

(Left) Walt Kuhn, Plumes, oil on canvas, 40 x 30 in. Acquired 1932. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. (Right) Marion “Duke” Green, Untitled, 2014. Watercolor and colored pencil on paper.

The Phillips is currently hosting the exhibition Art and Wellness: Creative Aging. The display features work from an ongoing collaboration between The Phillips Collection and Iona Senior Services. The program encourages older adults (many of whom suffer from chronic illness, including Alzheimer’s or related dementia), along with their families and caregivers, to make connections and access personal experiences and long-term memories through gallery conversations and hands-on art therapy.

Participants in the program looked at Walt Kuhn’s Plumes together. The painting prompted a group dialogue about how portraits convey mood and  composition, and how they can evoke personal memories. Individuals described the figure as “pensive,” “isolated,” “aloof,” and “not happy.” On participant, Duke, said, “She seems rather stiff and cold.” Another group member spoke of a “dichotomy” in the composition. She stated, “The feathers she wears on her head…there’s such an opposite appearance between what she’s wearing and how she presents herself.”

In the art therapy studio, Duke was drawn to Kuhn’s use of portraiture. He reminisced about his time drawing on the Atlantic City boardwalk with charcoal, and how he would identify women that inspired his work. He was eager to replicate the image: “It’s hard to go back to drawing after so many years. You see, I used to draw people’s portraits. But over time I’ve grown comfortable with it again.” Duke’s experience replicating Plumes gave him the confidence to continue to immerse himself in the artistic process, and reinvigorated his love for portraiture.

The Many (Feathered?) Caps of Walt Kuhn

I intended to follow up on our post about Plumes (1931) with another about Walt Kuhn’s works of women wearing tall hats and headdresses, of which there are quite a few. But as I started reading more about his life, I found that there is so much else to talk about when we talk about Walt Kuhn. Not only was he a chief organizer and chronicler of the 1913 Armory Show, and a spirited illustrator (as evidenced in his Christmas cards), but, perhaps not surprisingly, he tried to make a go at a theater career. A boyhood job delivering costumes backstage sparked his interest in the theatrical world, and in the 1910s and early ’20s, he was known for his flair with productions. Kuhn produced dramatic parties and masquerade balls for artists’ organizations such as the Kit Kat Club and the Penguin Club, as well as staged one-act plays with the likes of Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker. He even designed scenes for early stage pieces of Busby Berkeley. In 1923, disheartened by the low (and sometimes non-existent), pay of his theatrical efforts, Kuhn turned his full attention to painting.

For me, a fan of train travel, one of the most interesting branches of Kuhn’s creative career was his design for two Union Pacific Streamliner rail cars. “Little Nugget” was a first class club car designed for a passenger train called “City of Los Angeles”. The interior was meant to evoke an Old West-style saloon with rococo flourishes and also included many of Kuhn’s images of vaudeville clowns and performers. The “Frontier Shack” lounge car for the “City of Denver” train embodied a very different, but equally American, style of the frontier cabin; a woodsy setting replete with wanted posters and hanging lanterns.

Kuhn’s club car for “City of Los Angeles” passenger train, “Little Nugget”. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Kuhn’s “Frontier Shack” lounge car of the Union Pacific “City of Denver” passenger train. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

To learn more about Walt Kuhn and see digitized archival materials related to the projects described above, see the Archives of American Art’s rich holdings on this artist.

“…the very essence of feathers…”


Walt Kuhn, Plumes, 1931, Oil on canvas 40 x 30 in.; 101.6 x 76.2 cm.. Acquired 1932. The Phillips Collection, Washington DC.

Let’s let Duncan Phillips tell us about this painting:

“The girl under the Plumes, is thoroughly disillusioned and tired of it all. She seems to sag under her magnificent headdress and wonder perhaps why she ever left home. That headdress nonetheless is a magnificent passage of painting. The feathers are the very essence of feathers and, as texture, they are the apotheosis of pigment.”

That passage is from Phillips’s 1932 catalog to accompany an exhibition at the museum, Kuhn’s first solo show in Washington. Phillips purchased six Kuhn paintings between 1924 and 1943.

This work is on view in the Made in the USA exhibition through August 31, 2014.