Kuhnert shaped the image of Africa as perceived in Europe and the US like no other painter. The Schirn art museum in Frankfurt has a retrospective.
Wilhelm Kuhnert (1865-1926), a German landscape and animal painter, was one of the first European artists to travel to eastern Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In an era of few paintings and even fewer photographs from the European colonial areas in Africa, he would often study African wildlife more than a year at a time.
Kuhnert's illustrations for Brehms Tierleben (Brehm's Animal Life), a popular reference book on animals, secured his income and allowed him to travel to Africa to study and sketch animals in their natural habitat rather than in zoos. The zoo in Berlin had animals galore for the young artist to paint and draw, but he just wasn't interested in animals in captivity. He wanted to see them in their natural surroundings.
'An exercise in patience'
Europe then had a lively market for decorative paintings and sculptures of animals. Kuhnert, a business-minded artist, did a brisk trade in large-format oil paintings of zebras and elephants, selling them to wealthy collectors.
He also painted many of the animals printed on small trading cards that Stollwerck, the well-known chocolate factory in Cologne, added to its boxes of chocolates.
Observing lions, he once wrote in diary, was often an exercise in patience, "with the sun beating down on one's body, and the paint dripping from the palette like so much water."
"In one word," he concluded, "painting here is no breeze!"
"King of the Animals. Wilhelm Kuhnert and the image of Africa": from October 25 to January 27, 2019, the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt presents the first major retrospective on the artist's life and work. A catalogue is available in English.