Was it mere coincidence that the Kuhnert color plates had been removed from Siever’s 1891 natural history of Africa and Governor Götzen’s book was missing altogether from the New York Public Library? That The Animal Art of Wilhelm Kuhnert had disappeared from the Metropolitan Museum’s library, and the artist’s file at the Frick was empty?
Kuhnert is hot. In 2008, his A Pride of Lions on the Prowl sold for $590,00, and dozens of his oils, etchings, watercolors, pastels, and drawings have changed hands in recent years. Yet the more I researched Kuhnert, and his four safaris to German East Africa and Sudan between 1891 and 1912, the less I found. Even his grandson’s official-sounding www.wilhelmkuhnert.com Web site has piddled out with Hansjörg Werner’s passing. Everywhere the same banal biography, while Kuhnert’s richly detailed travel-painting-hunting diaries from Europe, East Africa, India, and Ceylon have never been published, and his enjoyable, wonderfully illustrated 1920 African narrative, Im Land Meiner Modelle, remains untranslated. The fans are out there; the art historians are not.
Europe’s first plein-air artist to portray Africa’s wildlife, landscapes, and people was born in 1865 in Oppeln, the German-speaking administrative center of Upper Silesia, located since the end of World War II in southern Poland. Although Kuhnert’s family quickly recognized his prodigious innate talent, his civil-servant father’s finances obliged him, at age 14, to apprentice in a machining factory in Cottbus (Brandenburg) over 300 kilometers away. But he studied the Old Masters,such as Holbein and Vermeer, on his own, using his pastor as a model. At 17, his uncle arranged his move to Berlin to live with a cousin and study fine art.
After supporting himself for two years as a portrait artist and calligrapher of elaborate calling cards, the self-taught 19-year-old applied to Berlin’s Royal Academy of Art. The classically structured four-year Studium included drawing with pencil, charcoal, and chalk; human anatomy and proportion, working from both plaster casts and live models; perspective and shading. Kuhnert also studied landscape painting under Ferdinand Bellermann, a plein-air enthusiast who’d spent four years in Venezuela, depicting its rainforests in exuberantly exotic, but scientifically accurate, landscapes.
By 1827, the Academy had already recognized the importance of applying traditional disciplines to animal portrayals, contributing to the 19 th-century fashion for scenes with sheep, cows, and horses. Kuhnert studied animal painting under Paul Meyerheim, who’d done credible works of lions from circuses and zoos, and taught the connection of skeleton and musculature to movement and expression, fur and its sheen.
Kuhnert could quickly internalize a scene and rapidly recreate it in two dimensions. He reputedly never used an eraser on a single drawing, or made a correction to any of his 137 etching plates—all of which, unfortunately, are lost. Success came early, and by age 20 he could already afford his first of many Berlin ateliers, while his itch for adventure would carry him as far as his yearnings and pfennigs would go.
That same year, 1885, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck formalized Germany’s position in the “Scramble for Africa” by granting an imperial charter to the protectorate of German East Africa (1885–1919), located between Great Britain’s Kenya colony and Portugal’s Mozambique, and encompassing yesterday’s Tanganyika and today’s Rwanda and Burundi.
Barely five years later, the 27-year-old artist set off on his first 18-month African safari, funded by earnings from illustrating a dictionary of animals published by Hans Meyer, the first European to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.
From Tanga on the Indian Ocean near the Kenya border, Kuhnert walked inland in the footsteps of Arab slavers through Masailand to the foothills of Kilimanjaro, his 25 porters carrying his camp, staples, exchange goods, and extensive art supplies.
On his G.E.A. safaris, Kuhnert was his own professional hunter. In his diaries, he complains of having to exchange his brushes for his hunting guns to fill the bellies of up to 60 ever-hungry men. But he recounts his stalks for elephant, lion, and buffalo, shooting distances, and locations of recovered bullets with the passion of a big-game hunter.
Kuhnert described and measured his subjects from horn tip to tail hairs with the curiosity of a 19 th-century natural scientist, but perceived their natural environment with the vision of a landscape artist. He chronicled African skies and weather and painted themin a bright, tropical luminescence—so different from Berlin studio light. Although he preferred gray skies, he painted blue ones to offset the striking markings of giraffes and zebras or the exploding lavender fields of the Masai steppe in bloom.